At the age of 18, Jeyasre Kathiravel had aspirations like any other young person. She wanted to go to college, get a degree and see where life would take her.

But this was a radical dream. Kathiravel came from a Dalit family and was the first woman from her village of Thennampatti in Tamil Nadu to pursue higher studies. Though college was expensive and her family could not afford it, this did not deter Kathiravel. To pay for her education, she did what many women elsewhere in the world have done: she started a job at a local factory.

In 2018, Kathiravel began her life as a garment worker at Natchi Apparels, a factory in Kaithian Kottai in Dindigul district of Tamil Nadu. Natchi Apparels, a supplier unit for the global fashion brand H&M, was owned by Eastman Exports, the fourth-largest garment exporter in India.

Unlike many other men and women in that factory, Kathiravel steadily worked her way to finish her bachelor’s degree though her work hours were often long, beginning late in the evening and stretching into dawn.

She got her Bachelor of Arts in Tamil, and by late 2020, she had begun studying for a Master of Arts in Tamil at the Arulmigu Palaniandavar College of Arts and Culture in the temple town of Palani. At the age of 21, it seemed like her world was slowly changing.

But on New Year’s Day 2021, Kathiravel was murdered. As was later discovered, she was killed by her male supervisor at the factory after months of sexual harassment. In the investigations that followed, something that had been common knowledge among many women in the factory was now publicly revealed. Despite Kathiravel’s attempts to bring these sexual harassment incidents to light, no action was taken.

In the aftermath of her murder, Kathiravel’s colleagues – 25 garment workers from the factory – came forward and reported to The Guardian a “culture of gender-based violence and harassment”. Though the company attempted to coerce Kathiravel’s family to accept a meagre financial settlement, there was an unexpected source of strength for Kathiravel’s family.

Kathiravel had been a member of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union, a Dalit women-led trade union founded in 2013, with 11,000 women workers of which 80% worked for global fashion giants in Europe and the United States. When the pressure began to pile up, Kathiravel’s family and the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union refused to budge.

Fight goes global

Over the next few months, the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union joined hands with its partners, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance and Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, two organisations which have been spearheading global campaigns to address violence and harassment in fashion supply chains.

Barring a report in The Caravan by Sowmya, a journalist based out of Coimbatore, India’s English media has barely noticed this murder. Internationally, however, The Guardian reported about Kathiravel’s murder in February last year.

The months that followed saw a small, local struggle grow into an international campaign despite the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The “Justice for Jeyasre” campaign was launched with the participation of labour and women’s rights organisations across the world with demands for accountability from international fashion brands such as H&M and others in addressing violence and harassment against women workers in their global supply chains.

Members of a union from Indonesia express solidarity during the global vigil held on April 21 last year. Credit: Ardra Manasi

Multinational fashion companies located in Europe and the United States almost always outsource and subcontract their work to supplier units, often located in the Global South.

In part, this is to improve process efficiency. But in addition, this arms-length relationship between the labour conditions and the branding of their products on the world stage gives these firms a form of strategic deniability.

While these factories have led to increased job opportunities for women, they remain largely invisible to these global companies and work in extremely precarious conditions, which make them more prone to violence and harassment.

Although international organisations, such as the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, have called for companies to perform “human rights due diligence”, the follow up has left much to be desired.

At the heart of this directive is an increasing recognition about the persistence of a “governance gap”. This refers to the failure in addressing human rights abuses arising from company operations as a result of which accountability and enforcement becomes a major challenge. This is especially so since these firms operate across borders in varied national contexts with distinct laws and regulatory frameworks.

In Tamil Nadu, it has been no different. The Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union has been organising against such exploitative practices since 2019. The union has been documenting the discrimination and harassment faced by women workers including physical, sexual and verbal harassment, caste-based discrimination, being made to work during lunch hours and even being denied bathroom breaks.

The union also highlighted the issue of wage theft, which included a range of illegal salary cuts, non-payment for overtime, unpaid gratuities, and instances where workers were dismissed before they would become eligible for gratuity.

The first light

One of the first victories for the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union and the “Justice for Jeyasre” campaign came in March 2021, in the form of a just and mutually agreeable compensation payment for Kathiravel’s family from Eastman Exports.

In April 2021, Kathiravel’s friends and colleagues joined more than 1,000 other participants from 33 countries at a global vigil. Their message was loud and clear with a poster – “Don’t Kill Me on Fashion”– held up over the teleconference window.

Jeyasre Kathiravel's friends and colleagues during the global vigil held April 21 last year. Credit: Ardra Manasi

This paved the way for more collective organising in the months ahead when two leaders of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union – Thivya Rakini and Jeeva M – spoke to audiences in several American cities in an effort to connect, learn from and develop joint strategies with worker leaders, trade unions and other organisations working on similar matters.

At one event in New York city on November 3, in which I participated on behalf of the Global 16 Days Campaign at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union made their demands clear once more: an enforceable agreement from Eastman Exports and H&M to put an end to gender-based violence against garment workers.

Hard-won victory

After months of sustained campaigning and negotiations, the Justice for Jeyasre Campaign won a major landmark victory on April 1, when the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union, Asia Floor Wage Alliance and the Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum jointly announced the “Dindigul Agreement”, referring to the district where the factory is situated.

The agreement includes a “set of enforceable agreements with the fast fashion brand H&M and Eastman Exports,” extending protection to 5,000 garment workers.

Among other things, the companies agreed to an independent investigation mechanism in the case of complaints, new protections against gender-based violence and harassment, guarantees of freedom of association in order to speak with a collective voice and worker-led monitoring of gender-based violence and harassment and caste-based discrimination by shop floor.

Thivya Rakini, president of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union, signs the Dindigul Agreement. Credit: Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union, via Twitter

Another seminal feature of the agreement is a broad definition of what constitutes gender-based violence and harassment – an expansive definition that is informed by the International Labor Organization Convention 190, the first international treaty to address violence and harassment in the world of work.

The legally-binding Convention 190 has been ratified by 12 countries till date. Though India has not yet ratified it, the Dindigul Agreement offers a promising example of how Convention 190 can be implemented even before its ratification.

New beginnings

What the “Justice for Jeyasre” campaign revealed is that gender-based violence in the world of work, if unaddressed, can devolve into extreme events: ranging from rape to femicide. This campaign also showed that unions can come together, organise on tactics and strategy to ensure that even opaque multinationals can be forced to react and make changes.

In effect, this campaign showed to many of those who worked on it that governments, employers, trade unions, civil society organisations and other stakeholders are often instrumental in preventing behaviour that can escalate to lethal violence.

This win for the “Justice for Jeyasre” campaign against a global fashion giant did not come easy. Poignantly, this is precisely Jeyasre Kathiravel’s legacy – to persist against incredible odds in order to achieve what may seem impossible at first.

Ardra Manasi is a Senior Program Coordinator for Advocacy & Partnerships at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, based out of Rutgers University. Her work focuses on gender, labor and human rights. She tweets at @ArdraManasi.