Tears welled up in Radhika’s eyes as she recalled the humiliation she faced after a new production manager joined the garment factory where she worked. “He would force me to wait beyond the working hours,” she said. “He would say, ‘Shall I drop you home? Do you understand what I am telling you? If you behave according to my expectations, you can continue to work here.’”

Radhika*, 38, worked as a line supervisor in a garment factory in Kancheepuram district, 40 km from Chennai. Owned by Slam Clothing Private Limited, the factory is part of a larger apparel-manufacturing business that supplies to major international brands.

For overseeing tailors who stitched shirts, Radhika earned a monthly salary of Rs 16,700. In April, a new production manager, Manivannan, joined the factory. Soon, Radhika began to notice his abusive and sexually coloured remarks. He allegedly called the women workers “thevadiya” or “whores”, stood uncomfortably close to them, stared at their chests, pinched them, waited outside the toilets and questioned them on why they had taken so long inside.

One evening in June, Radhika said, he insisted she stay back at the factory. She refused and stopped going to work the next day. Manivannan’s behaviour had forced her to leave the job she had done for two years.

“It shattered me completely,” she said, breaking into sobs.

Radhika was the fourth woman worker who quit the factory after Manivannan took charge. Between April and June, three other women left. They allege they were forced to leave because they opposed the production manager.

Over the last month, the #MeToo movement in India has led to an outpouring of personal stories. As urban women have gone public with their experiences of sexual harassment in media, advertising, film and other industries, several powerful men have been forced to resign, among them editor-turned-minister MJ Akbar. But the winds of change are yet to reach Tamil Nadu’s garment industry, where women, despite dominating the workforce, remain vulnerable to sexual harassers. Formal mechanisms, both within and outside factories, have largely failed to hold harassers to account.

At Slam Clothing Private Limited, two women workers voiced their discomfort about Manivannan’s behaviour to a production supervisor. This supervisor was a member of the factory’s internal complaints committee tasked with investigating sexual harassment complaints. But even she did not know how due process worked, since she had not been trained to handle formal inquiries. After the supervisor confronted Manivannan in public, he accused her of being inefficient. The human resources department backed him and asked her to leave.

After they left the factory, all four workers, with the help of the garment workers union, drafted formal complaints accusing Manivannan of sexual harassment. These complaints were sent to the company, the state women’s commission and the district administration.

Six months later, Manivannan continues to supervise production at the factory, while the women remain out of work.

In response to Scroll.in’s emails, a manager of Slam Clothing Private Limited said internal inquiries found the production manager was not guilty of sexual harassment. Manivannan has denied the charges against him. Blaming the women workers, he said: “The women did not work properly. They did not have any discipline… They left the company because they did not want to work.”

A woman-dominated industry

Radhika lives in Chengalpattu, 33 km from the outskirts of Chennai city. A high school graduate, she is married and has a six-year-old child.

She joined the factory in January 2016. Every morning, she would clean the house, cook for her child, pack her lunch and wait for the company vehicle to arrive. The ride to the factory would take at least an hour.

Located in Mahindra City near Chengalpattu in Kancheepuram District, Slam Clothing Private Limited makes clothes largely for export. Its directors – Viresh Seth and Nitesh Seth – run the apparel company Seth GmbH in Germany. Their clients include Inditex, an international fashion retailer that owns the Zara brand.

Mahindra City is part of the Madras Export Processing Zone-Special Economic Zone. Spread across 262 acres, it had five major garment and apparel parks employing around 50,000 women workers.

Of the 237 workers employed at Slam Clothing Private Limited’s Kancheepuram factory, 213 are women. They constitute 90% of the workforce. In her study of the garment industry, labour rights activist Meghna Sukumar attributed the high level of female employment to the low wages in the sector.

The Kancheepuram factory of Slam Clothing Private Limited. Photo: S Senthalir

‘He was a scoundrel’

Shahin*, 36, dropped out of school after Class 5 to financially support her family. She rolled beedis till the age of 23, when she started working in the garment sector as an operator stitching clothes. She moved to Slam Clothing Private Limited on January 3, 2014.

Four years into her job, her salary had risen to Rs 10,000 per month. She took pride in bringing stability to the family’s income that her husband’s daily wages could not.

Then, she encountered Manivannan.

“He would never look at my face and talk,” she said. “He would always stare at my chest. I was so scared that I would never talk to him or go to his cabin.”

But it was impossible to escape his presence. “He would stand near the door of the restroom, passing sexually-coloured remarks and question what was the need to pee so often.”

He intimidated women workers by accusing them of inefficiency, Shahin claimed. “He locked four out of six restrooms saying that women workers were spending more time in the restrooms.” He even reduced the tea break from 15 minutes to 10 minutes. Manivannan would stand uncomfortably close to her, she said, and even pinched her once.

Vijaytha*, another operator who stitched clothes, said Manivannan behaved like a poriki (scoundrel). He would come to the office inebriated and stare at her chest. “By avoiding conversation with him, I have tried to convey that I was not comfortable with his attitude,” she said.

On April 19, Manivannan asked Shahin and Vijaytha to move to the sampling section, which checks finished garments for flaws before dispatching them to the packing department.

Reluctant to leave the work she was good at, Shahin contacted the human resources department. “I was told I have to work as per the instructions of the production manager otherwise I could sign the resignation letter,” she said. She went on leave till April 28. When she returned to the factory, she was asked to submit her resignation.

Vijaytha went on leave as well. She returned on April 27, but was asked to submit her resignation.

Speaking up had consequences

Both the line operators had voiced their discomfort to Shantha, the production supervisor.

Shantha*, 42, had worked hard in the garment industry for 10 years, eventually rising to the position of a production supervisor. She had been working in Slam Clothing Private Limited since 2014. Line supervisors reported to her, while she reported to the production manager.

As a senior worker, she had been appointed to the internal complaints committee of the factory. Under the Sexual Harassment at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, it is mandatory for every establishment with ten or more employees to form such committees and appoint a minimum of three members to investigate sexual harassment complaints.

Shantha claims she was the only member of the committee. She said she was not trained or made aware of how to discharge her responsibilities as a committee member. The other women workers, who were illiterate, said they did not know about the existence of the committee, or that they could have submitted formal complaints.

However, the women workers confided in Shantha as a trusted senior. She could relate to their accounts because she personally felt harassed by Manivannan’s abusive, sexually coloured remarks, she said. She confronted him in public. He responded by engaging in character assassination – he spread rumours that she had an illicit relationship with a man in the company, she said. Fed up of the friction, she went on leave from April 28 till April 30.

Within days of her return, on May 3, Manivannan asked Shantha to submit her resignation, claiming she was not efficient enough. In a meeting on the same day with the human resources department and the chief executive officer, she used data to challenge Manivannan’s claims. “Since I worked as a production supervisor, I had kept count of the targets I achieved each day,” she said. But the department backed Manivannan and she was asked to go.

Escaping a predator

Radhika faced sexual advances from Manivannan. She feels she became a target because the production manager knew that her husband was an alcoholic and was rarely home.

“He used to stare at me,” she said. “Even my alcoholic husband had never looked at me in a manner that would make me uncomfortable.”

One day, he asked her: “Naan unna veetukku drop pannava? Shall I drop you home?” Radhika claims he told her to understand his expectations and behave accordingly. Several times, he tried to hold her back at work but she managed to evade.

Disturbed over the production manager’s behavior, she met the company’s chief executive officer Kamalesh Kumar on May 15. “I told him that I cannot work here at the cost of my self-respect and dignity,” she said. Kumar assured her she will not face harassment again.

For a few days, Manivannan was quiet and behaved well. On June 10, however, Radhika claimed he called her and told her she cannot continue work in the factory if she does not comply with his wishes – leaving it unsaid what that meant. At 6 pm that evening, as the factory closed, he asked her to stay back and prepare the machines for the next morning. Worried about missing the office drop, Radhika requested the van driver and other employees on the same route to wait for her. She rushed through the work, and half an hour later, told Manivannan she will complete the rest in the morning. That is when, she claims, he insisted that she inform her family that she would reach home late every day.

This was the last straw, she said. The next day, she did not go back to work.

With a six-year-old child to support, losing this job had been catastrophic for Radhika. Despite having several years of work experience in the garment industry, she has not been able to find another job. “Mani is spreading rumors about me in other garment factories and asking the other companies to not recruit me,” she said.

Now, she is doing odd jobs to meet her expenses. In October, she was able to find work for only five days, for Rs 200 a day.

Employees leave a garment factory in Tirupur, Tamil Nadu. Photo: Mansi Thapilyal/Reuters

How formal mechanisms failed

While they were at the factory, the women did not know how to report cases of sexual harassment. But after they left the factory, they contacted the Garment and Fashion Workers Union, which helped them draft formal complaints against Manivannan. The complaints of the production supervisor and two operators were sent to the company management on May 7, while the complaint of line operator was sent on June 7, said Sujata Mody, the president of the union.

Subsequently, on June 23, the union emailed a copy of the complaints to Nitesh Seth and Viresh Seth. The Union asked them to constitute an internal complaints committee and constitute an inquiry into the complaints. Scroll.in has reviewed these emails.

Simultaneously, the Union forwarded the complaints to the Tamil Nadu State Women’s Commission, the assistant commissioner of labour, the local police station, the district collector and the district social welfare officer. Three complaints were forwarded on June 7, and the fourth complaint on June 14.

On June 20, the district social welfare officer S Sangeetha directed the One Stop Centre to conduct a preliminary inquiry. In 2016, the Ministry of Women and Child Development had asked states to set up One-Stop Centres in all districts to support women affected by violence within family, community and work spaces.

The One Stop Centre in Kancheepuram accepted the complaints of the four workers on June 26. However, no local complaints committee has so far been established to investigate the complaints, said Mody. “We sent reminders again in August and September.”

The district social welfare officer S Sangeetha told Scroll.in that her office had sent a letter on October 29 to the revenue divisional officer, asking him to direct the company management to take action against the accused. When contacted, the staff at the office of the revenue divisional officer in Tambaram said that they have not received any letter from the social welfare department.

Denials and dismissals

Manivannan claimed the charges against him were fabricated by workers whom he had pulled up for indiscipline.“The production supervisor and operators were doing politics and the line operator was talking ill about others while working,” he said. “I warned them to concentrate only on work.”

The company maintains it has conducted an internal inquiry and found Manivannan was not guilty of sexual harassment. “Hence, need to take action against the accused doesn’t arise after the allegations were found to be totally false and untrue,” said R Rajalakshmi of the Human Resources Department, responding to Scroll.in’s email to the chief executive officer Kamalesh Kumar.

Rajalakshmi said the management and the department had conducted “detailed enquiries” between May 2018 and July 2018. “This is despite the fact that the initial complaint received from the 1st batch of 3 workers didn’t mention anything about sexual harassment charges,” Rajalakshmi said. “In fact, one of the women worker was also part of the Sexual Harassment Committee but never brought up any harassment charges during her 4 years of employment.”

Asked to furnish the names of the members of the internal complaints committee, the official was not specific: “Employees of the company are committee members.”

The Sexual Harassment at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, defines sexual harassment as physical contact and advances, a demand or request for sexual favours, making sexual coloured remarks, showing pornography and any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.

All the four garment workers have decided to hire a lawyer and pursue their fight in the court.

*Names changed on request.

This is the first part in a two-part series on sexual harassment in the garment industry of Tamil Nadu.