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Murder, rape and abuse in Asia’s factories: the true price of fast fashion | Garment workers

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Jeyasre Kathiravel had always dreamed of a life beyond the garment factories of Dindigul, a remote corner of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Despite the meagre wages she was earning – about £80 a month – Kathiravel knew she was lucky to have a job at Natchi Apparels, a local factory making clothes for H&M and other international brands.

Like many Dalit women in her community, a job at the factory had provided her family with a stable salary. Yet she wanted more. So, with dreams of escaping the deprivation and caste discrimination that had stalked her family for generations, the 20-year-old studied for the civil service exams by night before leaving her home each morning to work long shifts sewing clothes for other, luckier, young women thousands of miles away.

Jeyasre Kathiravel was allegedly killed by her supervisor.
Jeyasre Kathiravel was allegedly killed by her supervisor. Photograph: Handout

Kathiravel never escaped the factory floor. On 1 January 2021, she failed to return home from work. Despite her family’s frantic attempts to find her, four days later her decomposing body was discovered by farmers just a few miles from her village.

When her supervisor, a man named by Indian media as V Thangadurai, was arrested for her murder, few of her intimate circle were surprised. Thangadurai has since been charged with her murder and is in jail awaiting trial.

For months before Kathiravel’s death, her family and co-workers say that Thangadurai was perpetrating a relentless campaign of sexual harassment towards her, which she felt powerless to report or stop.

“She said this man was torturing her but she didn’t know what to do because she was so scared of losing her job,” says her mother, Muthuakshmi Kathiravel.

“She was such a good girl, she was the best of all of us. She was always helping me and supporting the family, but wanted to do different things with her life.”

Workers at Natchi interviewed by the Observer in the weeks after her murder say Thangadurai was known to be a sexual predator operating with impunity at the factory.

“We all knew what he was doing to Jeysare but nobody in management cared,” says one woman who worked alongside Kathiravel. “If she complained she was scared she would lose her job or that men from the factory would visit her family and say she was a troublemaker.”

A year later, Kathiravel’s family are still deep in grief. In their home, Kathiravel’s face smiles down at them from a photo on the wall and they say they can never fill the hole she has left behind. Yet they now believe her death has not been in vain.

Kathiravel’s family outside their home in Dindigul, Tamil Nadu.
Kathiravel’s family outside their home in Dindigul, Tamil Nadu.

In the weeks after her murder, dozens of other women working at the factory came forward to claim that they too were being harassed and assaulted at Natchi. Their bravery set off a chain of events that could transform the lives of the 3,000 women working at the factory and provide a blueprint for how global fashion brands can stop the epidemic of sexual violence that has taken hold in fast fashion supply chains.

The inexorable rise of the multi-billion pound fast fashion industry has conditioned consumers to expect rock-bottom prices and a constant churn of new products, ramping up the pressure brands place on their overseas suppliers to produce ever-higher volumes of clothing in less time – with garment workers on poverty wages facing the consequences on the factory floor.

“The sexual harassment the women are facing in the garment industry is directly linked to their desperation to keep their jobs at all costs,” says Thivya Rakini, president of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU). “Their fingerprints are all over the clothes that people in rich countries wear, but their suffering is being silenced.”

Despite the factory’s denials after the allegations were made public, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), a global organisation investigating labour abuses, launched an independent investigation into Natchi.

Its findings, shared exclusively with the Observer ahead of publication by the WRC, are a grim read.

In a detailed report, investigators say that multiple interviews and evidence gathering with more than 60 workers led them to conclude that Kathiravel was not the first garment worker to have been murdered at Natchi.

Investigators say they are confident that at least two other female workers besides Kathiravel were killed while working at Natchi between 2019 and 2021.

The WRC says it is “virtually certain” that a company-contracted bus driver and labour recruiter murdered a female worker following a sexual relationship that began while they were both working at the factory.

Thivya Rakini, president of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union speaks with Kathiravel’s family at their home.
Thivya Rakini, president of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union speaks with Kathiravel’s family at their home.

The report claims there is a “high likelihood” that a migrant worker was also murdered on factory grounds by an unknown perpetrator and her body dumped in a shipping container. The report claims that multiple Natchi employees, including an eyewitness, testified that the murder had occurred on factory property and that afterwards managers had told workers not to talk about the incident.

The WRC has made it clear that investigators did not find concrete evidence to hold Natchi management directly responsible for these alleged killings or for the death of Kathiravel.

However, the report argues, multiple murders of female Natchi employees by men working for Natchi in supervisory or quasi-supervisory roles could not be detached from the environment of gender-based violence and harassment that Natchi management had allowed to flourish at the factory.

WRC investigators concluded that over the past decade, women working at Natchi had been subjected to “pervasive” physical sexual harassment, verbal sexual harassment, non-verbal sexual harassment and sexual coercion, with male supervisors propositioning female workers at the workplace for sexual relationships by coercive means.

Women workers told investigators that their male supervisors routinely bullied and publicly humiliated them for missing production targets and they were subjected to constant verbal abuse and sexual slurs. Investigators also found that factory management tolerated an environment of caste discrimination, where workers from the lowest Dalit castes were shunned by employees from higher castes.

The TTCU is investigating 29 other cases where women have died non-natural deaths while working in garment factories.
The TTCU is investigating 29 other cases where women have died non-natural deaths while working in garment factories.

Eastman Exports, which owns Natchi Apparels, says it “disputes the accuracy of a number of statements in the WRC report” and denies that the murder of a migrant worker occurred on Natchi premises.

However, the company says it has taken all the allegations seriously and “has created systems, processes and procedures to protect and promote the rights of female workers”.

“We have listened very carefully to our women workers and we are going to make sure that no woman ever feels unsafe again in one of our workplaces,” says Subash Tiwari, chief executive of Eastman Exports, who says he was shocked by the murder of Kathiravel and that his top priority was ensuring the safety of his female workers.

Last month, groundbreaking legally binding agreements were signed between Eastman Exports and the TTCU – a local female-led garment worker trade union that represents women at the factory – as well two international worker rights groups, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) and Global Labour Justice (GLJ). Among other provisions, the agreement will overhaul the factory’s internal complaints process, install TTCU members on the factory floor to ensure women are safe at work and operate a zero-tolerance approach to harassment and verbal and physical abuse.

Thivya Rakini of the TTCU in discussion with textile workers.
Thivya Rakini of the TTCU in discussion with textile workers. The union will now have members on the factory floor to ensure women are safe at work

Despite cancelling its orders at Natchi, H&M has signed a separate agreement with the TTCU, AFWA and GLJ and has committed to staying at the factory to help with implementation. It is the first time a brand has signed up to an initiative to tackle gender-based violence in Asia’s garment industry, where women make millions of tonnes of clothing for UK high streets every year.

If the agreement is properly implemented, the WRC says that Natchi could become one of the safest places for women to work in Tamil Nadu, a region notorious for dangerous working conditions for women.

“Our report documented serious abuses at this facility; however, because Natchi has made enforceable commitments to protect workers, it now presents a lower risk to buyers than just about any other supplier they might use,” says Rola Abimourched, deputy director of investigations and gender equity at the WRC.

Yet the labour rights groups involved in the Natchi case say the abuse that was uncovered should not be seen as an isolated incident. Instead, it is an indication of how sexual violence has flourished and become deeply embedded into the production model of fast fashion.

“What we are facing is an epidemic of gender-based violence in the global fashion industry, but because it is happening to poor women working thousands of miles away it isn’t considered the huge human rights scandal that it is,” says Abimourched.

In Tamil Nadu, the TTCU is investigating 29 other cases where women have died non-natural deaths while working in garment factories supplying brands sold in the UK. It says that in many cases, the women were murdered by male colleagues after alleged rapes and campaigns of sexual harassment.

Thivya Rakini
Thivya Rakini

“The abuse and harassment that was happening at Natchi is just everyday life in the factories where we work,” says Rakini. “We have seen many cases of women dying in garment factories across the region and nothing being done to investigate or seek justice.”

Anannya Bhattacharjee, international coordinator at the AFWA, says her organisation has catalogued multiple cases of egregious gender-based violence at garment facilities across Asia.

“Over the years, across production countries, we have witnessed and documented women garment workers being verbally and physically harassed, assaulted, threatened with retaliation for refusing sexual advances and denied basic rights,” she says.

Interviews with female workers by AFWA researchers in 2021 paint a horrifying picture of the scale and impunity of the sexual violence faced by the women who make our clothes.

“I have worked in this industry for more than 20 years and I have seen terrible things happen within these factories – rapes, suicides and even murders,” one woman working in a factory in India producing clothing for foreign brands told AFWA researchers.

“Women workers have no power to oppose the men in power – be it supervisors or managers. They can do anything to any woman – we are all at their mercy and we have no one to support or stand for us.”

The TTCU say they are working with women across the region as more come forward asking for help.
‘We have to make sure that Jeysare’s death is the start of something that could prevent other women from also losing their lives,’ says Rakini

Female workers in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka also spoke to AFWA researchers about similar conditions at their factories. They spoke of managers forcing women to take pills to delay their periods in order to meet production targets, male workers coercing women into sexual relationships to get their sewing machines fixed and women being fired if they complained about sexual harassment.

“We keep silent due to fear of losing our jobs … the mental stress reached the point of breakdown – I was feeling almost suicidal,” says one woman at a factory in Pakistan that the AFWA says was making clothing for multiple brands selling in the UK.

For years, campaigners have warned that the fashion industry’s use of ethical codes of conduct and factory inspections to flag up human rights abuses don’t work; instead they allow brands to swerve responsibility for abuses that their production model and profit margins have created.

In the weeks after Kathiravel’s murder, women workers at Natchi told the Observer that the factory inspections conducted by brands were a sham. “The management knows when the auditors are coming and they tell us what to say,” said one young woman. “They say if we complain the factory would close and we would lose our jobs.”

When abuses are uncovered, especially sexual violence, this allows brands to “cut and run”, pulling their business from suppliers and protecting their reputation.

“When trade unions raise issues of gender-based violence in a garment supplier factory to a brand, they generally just cut sourcing from that supplier. When they do this women lose jobs, are doubly victimised and become fearful of speaking out about what is happening to them,” says Bhattacharjee.

The WRC says that in the case of Natchi, brands that sourced from the factory had a moral responsibility to keep their business there.

“H&M has committed to support this vital programme to combat gender-based violence and harassment by signing the agreement. If H&M does not restore orders soon, it will gravely undermine the success of its own programme,” says Abimourched.

She also says that brands, including Marks & Spencer and Walmart, that were sourcing from the factory in the period of time when workers testified to experiencing sexual abuse had an obligation to resume orders.

“If they do not place orders now to support this process, it will be clear that their claims about respecting worker rights are meaningless.”

Muthulakshmi shows her daughter’s work identity pass.
Although still mourning her deeply, Kathiravel’s family believe that as the catalyst for change to protect other women, her death was not in vain

H&M says that while it had stopped orders at Natchi, “our focus and hope is that the agreement reached will contribute to sustainable and lasting change for the industry as a whole beyond one individual company”.

Marks & Spencer says it ceased trading with Natchi in January 2020 and will not be working with the factory nor signing up to the agreement.

“We have not sourced from Natchi Apparels for over two years and had ceased the relationship prior to the WRC investigation. Ethical trading is fundamental to how we do business and we fully support the principle of remediation to improve working conditions,” it said in a statement.

Walmart did not respond to a request for comment.

In Dindigul, the TTCU says it is working with women across the region who are now coming forward to ask for help.

“We are all human beings, all of our lives matter,” says Rakini. “We have to make sure that Jeysare’s death is the start of something that could prevent other women from also losing their lives because those in power simply don’t care.”

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Eduardo Zapateiro: Colombian army chief resigns to avoid appearing beside president-elect Petro at inauguration | International

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General Eduardo Zapateiro, the commander of the Colombian army, resigned on Tuesday to avoid appearing beside president-elect Gustavo Petro at his inauguration on August 7. “After 40 years in service, I bid farewell to the Colombian people, giving my heartfelt thanks to all my soldiers,” he announced.

Zapateiro, who comes from the hardline wing of the armed forces, has been a vocal opponent of the leftist leader. During the presidential election campaign, the army commander controversially spoke out against Petro on Twitter – a move that was condemned as unconstitutional. Incumbent President Iván Duque, however, defended Zapateiro, arguing that the general was sharing his point of view – not taking a political stand.

Zapateiro announced his retirement just one day after Petro told EL PAÍS that he planned to change the leadership of the armed forces. “This leadership was deeply imbued by the political line of the executive [of Iván Duque] now reaching the end of its term. But this path is unsustainable and turns our security forces into a victim, as they have been led to perpetrate grotesque violations of human rights. What we are proposing will make our security forces democratically stronger,” he said in the interview.

The Colombian general has often raised eyebrows with his behavior. Following the death of Jhon “Popeye” Jairo Velásquez, a henchman for drug lord Pablo Escobar who had killed dozens of people, Zapateiro sent his condolences to his family and said he was saddened by his loss. To this day, no one has explained why the general made these statements.

In Colombia, the government and the military have a complex relationship. The country has fought for decades against guerrilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). The ongoing armed struggle placed the military in a position of great power. Indeed until the 1990s, the armed forces controlled the Defense Ministry. As in many other countries, the Colombian armed forces are a conservative group that is highly suspicious of leftist ideas. The peace agreement, for example, that ended five decades of conflict with the FARC, divided Colombia’s troops. Zapateiro initially supported the accords, but over time, became an outspoken critic.

What kind of relationship Petro will form with the military remains to be seen. As a politician, he has been very critical of the army’s focus on targeting internal enemies. The Colombian armed forces have been fighting against guerrilla groups and drug gangs for decades. During this conflict, they have often overstepped their bounds and violated human rights.

In the early 2000s, a scandal broke in Colombia when it was revealed that military officers were carrying out summary executions of innocent civilians and listing them as guerrillas killed in combat. These so-called “false positives” took place in different regions of the country between 2002 and 2008 and were used as proof of performance by military units and to collect “kill fees” awarded by the government of former president Álvaro Uribe. A total of 6,402 innocent people are estimated to have been killed in these summary executions. Just a few months ago, several civilians also died in suspicious circumstances during an army operation in Putumayo.

With Petro elected as Colombia’s first leftist president in modern history, it was no longer tenable to have Zapeteiro leading the armed forces. The Colombian newspaper El Espectador published an editorial to that effect, with the headline: “Isn’t it time to retire, General Zapateiro?”

Petro aims to tackle corruption within the army, which he believes is home to extremist factions. “There are currents in the far right that must be eliminated. Some are talking openly about coups and things like that. But look, within the army there are no factions friendly to Petro, there are factions friendly to the Constitution,” Petro told EL PAÍS.

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Canada should focus on abortion access not legislation, advocates say | Global development

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Abortion advocates are warning that the recent US supreme court ruling overturning Roe v Wade will empower anti-choice groups in Canada to push for restricted access, making a settled matter appear controversial in a country where nearly 80% of people are pro-choice.

A key anti-choice strategy in Canada revolves around enacting abortion legislation – an idea that has been gaining traction amid the fallout of the US court ruling. There is currently no abortion law in Canada, making it the only country in the world where the procedure is totally free of legal restrictions.

“There’s a lot of talk right now about whether or not the Canadian government should pass a proactive law protecting our right to abortion – a pre-emptive strike, if you will. That would be a big mistake,” said Daphne Gilbert, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.

Gilbert and other abortion advocates say that while enshrining abortion rights may sound progressive, the opposite is true: consolidating rules would make it easier for anti-choice legislators to retract abortion rights if ever they found themselves in a majority. Last year, 81 Conservative MPs (and one independent) voted for anti-choice legislation.

And while the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, promised Canadians after Roe that his government would “always stand up for your right to choose”, advocates argue that may not always be true.

That’s why the country should focus on entrenching people’s rights by expanding abortion access, said Gilbert.

Since it became legal in a 1988 supreme court ruling, abortion in Canada has been designated as a medical service like any other, on par with procedures like X-rays and blood tests. But that doesn’t make it easy to get – especially in remote, religious or conservative parts of the country.

In 2014, Sarah (who asked to remain anonymous) sought an abortion on Prince Edward Island (PEI) – a province of 30,000 that, at the time, did not have a single publicly operating abortion provider.

It took Sarah a month to finally secure a provider – five hours away, in another province. The trip incurred travel and lodging costs, but the procedure itself was covered by the healthcare authority.

“The idea that anybody has to travel to take care of something that you should be able to get done close to home – it’s not fine,” said Sarah. Abortion care only arrived on PEI in 2017, after activists sued the provincial government for acting unconstitutionally.

Although there is no federal law, each province’s medical college sets its own guidelines on abortion, including gestational age limits for use of the abortion pill.

Those guidelines are shaped by the skills and training available in each province, said Martha Paynter, an abortion care provider in Nova Scotia and the author of the new book Abortion to Abolition: Reproductive Health and Justice in Canada.

But there is also a political dimension to providing abortion care that prevents some doctors and nurse practitioners from taking it up.

“More people could be doing it than are doing it,” said Paynter. “We as educators – I’m a prof at a nursing school – have the responsibility to teach in every medical and nursing program how to do this care, and hardly [any school] does it.”

Paynter is the creator of the country’s first university abortion course, at Dalhousie University, which is open to students across medical, nursing and other health programs with the purpose of inspiring future health workers to integrate abortion access into primary care.

The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists offers an online course to teach professionals how to prescribe and manage medical abortion.

But most students and healthcare professionals are not required to learn about how medication and surgical abortion work – and many choose to abstain because they are afraid to enter the political fray around abortion.

According to Gilbert, that means a lot of primary care providers stay wilfully uninformed.

“A lot of doctors just aren’t political people. They’re scientists, and they don’t see the politics behind some of their care,” she said.

Further complicating access is the fact that many Canadians are unaware that nurse practitioners in the country are permitted to prescribe the abortion pill and refer patients to surgical abortion providers – or that most patients can self-refer directly to an abortion provider.

Addressing these issues is critical to expanding existing access to medication and surgical abortion, said Paynter and Gilbert.

In 2017, Natalie (also a pseudonym) discovered she was pregnant while visiting her parents in a small town in northern Alberta. After one doctor at a local walk-in clinic told her abortion was murder, she demanded an appointment with a different doctor.

That doctor told her that there was no such thing as medical abortion. “He looked me in the face and said, ‘That doesn’t exist,’” she said.

Mifegymiso – otherwise known as the abortion pill – was approved by Health Canada in 2015, but had only recently hit the market when Natalie found herself at the doctor’s office.

“I know it exists. It’s literally the front page of the news,” she told him.

Still, she went away empty-handed. She was only able to get an abortion after returning to her home province of New Brunswick, where only three hospitals and one clinic provide abortion. Natalie went to the clinic, where she paid $800 for a surgical abortion – a cost incurred because the province refuses to pay for abortions performed outside of hospitals.

New Brunswick is currently being sued for its restriction of abortion.

Stories like those of Sarah and Natalie show how abortion remains inaccessible in Canada, despite its federal legal standing.

“Our greatest problems really come in terms of provinces and what they may do to restrict access to abortion in light of what I think is now going to be a really emboldened anti-choice movement,” said Gilbert.

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Missing child in Germany: German boy found alive after surviving eight days in sewer | International

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German police have found an eight-year-old boy who went missing from his home in Oldenburg, a city of 170,000 people in northwestern Germany. The child, named Joe, was discovered on Saturday in a sewer just 300 meters from his house. He had survived in the sewer for eight days while hundreds of officers and volunteers frantically searched the surface for clues to his whereabouts. “Eight-year-old Joe lives!” police in Oldenburg announced on Twitter.

The boy, who suffers from learning disabilities, disappeared on June 17 from the garden of his house. Police launched a large-scale search with drones, helicopters, sniffer dogs and dozens of officers, who were joined by hundreds of volunteers. As the days passed, a homicide team joined the investigation amid growing fears that Joe – who is only identified by his first name due to Germany’s privacy laws – could have been the victim of a violent crime. A witness claimed to have seen him in the company of an unidentified man and it was feared he may have been kidnapped.

“It was absolute luck,” said Stephan Klatte, the Oldenburg police spokesman, said of Joe’s discovery. A neighbor who was walking in the area raised the alarm when he heard “a whining noise” coming from the ground, just under a drain. When officers lifted the manhole cover, they found the boy, completely naked. He had no serious external injuries, but was dehydrated and suffering from hypothermia, for which he was taken to hospital for treatment. According to German media, he is recovering well. “If he hadn’t made a sound, or if no one had heard him, we might never have found him,” Klatte said.

In a statement, the police reported that they believed that Joe likely entered the rainwater drainage system through a sewer on the same day of his disappearance and “lost his bearings after walking several meters.” Police have ruled out any foul play in the incident.

On Sunday, the day after Joe was discovered, police commissioned a specialized company to inspect the sewage system with a robot equipped with a camera. The robot examined the sewer between the boy’s home and the place where he was found. It recorded several items of clothing, including what he was wearing when he disappeared, in a pipe about 60 centimeters in diameter that runs under one of the streets of the neighborhood where he lives with his parents. The robot found, for example, the child’s vest, 70 meters from the point of entry.

Officers found an entrance to a three-foot-wide drainage channel near the farm where he was last seen on the day of his disappearance. Authorities believe the boy entered the channel while playing. After 23 meters, the tunnel leads to another narrower plastic pipe and police think it is likely the eight-year-old continued down this path. Joe was eventually found about 290 meters from where he entered the sewer system.

Police believe that Joe became more and more disoriented until he could no longer find a way out. “A first statement from the child confirms this assumption,” said the statement, which does not provide more details about what he told officers. Investigators say they have not been able to question the boy in detail, as he remains in hospital. Nothing has been found to suggest that the child came to the surface in the eight days in which he was missing. In the statement, police asked that no questions about his state of health be made out of respect for him and his family.



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