By Jeeva M
About the Author
Jeeva M is the General Secretary of Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU), a Dalit women-led trade union, representing 11,000 women workers in Tamil Nadu, India. Jeeva, who hails from the Dalit community, has worked for more than five years in the Tamil Nadu textile industry, including at Eastman Exports. She was one of the founding members of TTCU and has been leading struggles for decent work and violence-free workplaces for garment workers for more than a decade.
Jeyasre Kathiravel was a 21-year-old member of my union, Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labor Union (TTCU). She worked 10-hour shifts as a garment worker every day, from late evening to early morning, producing clothing for major U.S. and European fashion brands to pay for college. She was the first woman from our village to enter the local university. She was murdered this past January by her supervisor, after facing months of sexual harassment from him. She is one of 13 Dalit women who are murdered every week in India. Gender-based violence, amplified by unchecked caste-based discrimination in the workplace, is what led to the untimely death of Jeyasre. Although caste and gender-based violence are legally outlawed in India, the lack of implementation and the caste and gender bias within workplaces leaves Dalit women workers, like Jeyasre, unprotected.
This is particularly true within the garment industry, where workers are almost entirely women and often, mostly Dalit and migrant women. This was the case at Eastman Exports, the factory where Jeyasre worked and one of India’s major garment suppliers. Suppliers like Eastman tend to staff their shops with male supervisors from more dominant castes, intensifying the power imbalance, which the factory uses to control and coerce workers into meeting their production demands.
American and European fashion brands demand low prices and high production from the factories, creating an environment where suppliers have to make workers produce quickly for low wages, often through abusive methods. Workers in the garment industry have reported that, “physical discipline practices spiked after second tier management came out of meetings with senior management driving production targets.” Supervisors at Eastman Exports have even hurled heavy bundles of clothing at workers. Women garment workers are often subjected to insults, unwanted touches, and verbal abuse. And, in some supplier factories, women are made to perform sexual favors in exchange for basic rights like breaks, overtime pay, and scheduling needs.
It’s this combination of pressure from above and power disparities on the shopfloor that lead to a culture of bullying and coercion, which can ultimately result in femicide. I would know. I’ve seen it play out with my fellow union members and former co-workers.
At Eastman, after Jeyasre’s murder at the beginning of this year, 25 other women came forward with reports of sexual harassment, bravely breaking their silence and highlighting how widespread sexual harassment is within the factory and the garment industry overall.
Unfortunately, this culture of sexual harassment had been allowed to fester for far too long. We’ve seen that if supervisors are allowed to commit these acts of violence and harassment without consequences, they often escalate. When supervisors use rude or abusive language toward women workers without consequences, it sends a signal that they can go farther. In time, they start coercing women workers to perform sexual favors that can eventually lead to rape, femicide, or suicide.
Jeyasre experienced multiple acts of violence and harassment along this spectrum before she was murdered. Had these acts of harassment been prevented or penalized early on, Jeyasre would most likely be alive today.
Management at Eastman Exports must take responsibility for their working conditions. Period. But, it is the global fashion brands who ultimately profit most from high production and low wages in these factories. These purchasing practices drive worker exploitation and gender and caste-based violence and harassment.
To prevent more femicide and harassment in the industry, we’re looking not only at Jeyasre’s murder and the sexual harassment in the factory but also at the systems of economic pressure that start with fashion brands, get passed down to suppliers, and are ultimately released on to workers.
When Jeyasre, my neighbour and fellow organizer at TTCU, was murdered by her dominant caste supervisor, as a union, we committed ourselves to doing everything in our power to stop the violence against Dalit women in the garment industry. Although we knew, from experience, that we would face harassment and intimidation, we, and the hundreds of women workers in Eastman Exports, remain steadfast in our demand for ‘Justice for Jeyasre.’ As TTCU received more cases of sexual harassment from Jeyasre’s coworkers, we reached out to global allies and launched a massive campaign that has brought major brands sourcing from the factory to the table. We supported Jeyasre’s family in negotiating a mutually agreed upon compensation, but we continue to fight for all the other victims and survivors of gender and caste-based violence at Eastman.
As the General Secretary of the TTCU, I’m organizing alongside other Dalit women garment workers to demand enforceable binding agreements (EBAs) to end gender-based violence from Eastman Exports and the global brands that source from them. Such agreements would provide women workers and TTCU with the ability to monitor, prevent, and remediate gender and caste-based violence and harassment in the factory. Enforcement from the top would ensure workers have the right to freedom of association and would reverse the purchasing practices that drive suppliers, like Eastman, to exploit and coerce workers.
Through the #JusticeForJeyasre campaign, we’re demanding real protection against the violence and harassment that have plagued and even killed our fellow workers. We’re demanding justice for Jeyasre, because we can’t allow any more of our friends and neighbors to be murdered.