It all started with the death of a female worker of Natchi Apparels, one of the factories of Eastman Exports Global Clothing Private Limited and for the last four months, this company which is amongst India’s leading exporters, is facing heat as one of the trade unions and international groups has levelled serious allegations against it. Apparel Resources was the first to report on this issue and is keeping a close eye on the same. Recently this issue received limelight at international level also. Even H&M said that it has launched a third party investigation in this regard.
In an interview with Apparel Resources, Alagesan S, Sr. Vice President, Sustainability, CSR and Quality of the company shared details about this issue. No doubt, it was a sad incident but as it took place around 60 to 70 km away from the factory, the allegations seem biased. It is also pertinent to mention here that often the Indian apparel industry faces negative and false propaganda by international NGOs and it could lead to loss of business also as international brands are very much concerned about their supply chain partners, especially on women-based issues. The buyers should therefore extend their fullest support.
How is your factory Natchi Apparel connected with the murder of this employee?
To begin with, we extend our utmost sympathy to the family members on the loss of Jeyasre Kathirvel. The entire episode of this unfortunate incident has happened almost 60 to 70 kilometres away from the factory and also not during the course of the employment. The affair between Jeyasre and the other accused person is related to their own personal nature and background and therefore, our factory is in no way connected to the entire episode.
Of course, the accused and the victim, worked together for a short period in the same department, but later on they were posted in different units and worked in different time shifts. There was no report of abuse or harassment inside the workplace. The referred employees were found to have personal relationship outside the workplace.
Any updates on the accused?
Through the Police authorities, we have learnt that both the accused Thangadurai and the co-accused Jagannathan have confessed to the crime of killing Jeyasre Kathirvel. They both are under the Police custody and judicial investigation is still going on.
Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) plays a major role in avoiding such incidents in any garment factory. Did your factory’s ICC receive and register any complaints on Thangadurai by Jeyasre or any other woman employee?
The factories have a functioning ICC in its place and it was formed in accordance with the provisions of the POSH Act, 2013. The external member of our factories’ ICC is SAVE, one of the prominent NGOs from this region. Besides, we have also got a hotline grievance mechanism in our Natchi factory since August 2020.
Any grievance related to ICC is acknowledged, registered and addressed by the relevant committees independently. Necessary enquiry proceedings are also carried out, actions are taken, details are recorded and available with the respective factories.
No negative incident as such was reported to these relevant committees or factory management or through hotline or the referred NGO SAVE on Thangadurai in connection with any of the employees. Even the victim’s co-workers did not witness anything unusual inside the factory premises prior to the referred unfortunate tragic incident.
We are always transparent and all these log books are open to investigation at any point of time.
What is your response to the allegations raised by various NGOs/trade union/social media activists on your company?
We strongly deny these allegations as all these allegations are totally false, baseless and far from ground realities. All these allegations were claimed to be raised by TTCU and the same has been endorsed by Asian Floor Level Wages Alliance. None of our employees are members of the said TTCU and they are not a registered union of Natchi Apparel.
The said international labour rights groups or the trade unions have not approached us or visited us till date. It is totally unrealistic to carry out the investigation process remotely and draw conclusions.
We have been unfairly targeted without any detailed investigation, which is unfortunate. We fear that this would have a negative impact on our business and thereby on the livelihood of many of our employees.
As a moral responsibility towards the grieving family and to demonstrate our solidarity with the deceased employee and her family, we engaged SAVE, a prominent local NGO of Southern India to carry out its own factfinding investigation. The report of the investigation has been already shared with all our clients.
Any specific reason to choose SAVE?
We at Eastman are associated with SAVE for many years in various dimensions. We have engaged them as an external member of our factories’ ICC. We also engage them for providing awareness to our employees on various workplace-related topics through training programmes. We also take their support for doing some of our CSR activities.
Once this unfortunate incident reached us, we demonstrated our solidarity with the deceased employee and and her family as a part of our moral responsibility.
Since SAVE was already associated with us as an external member of our factory’s ICC, we thought that they would be the right person for carrying out the said investigation.
Though we asked SAVE to do the investigation, they did not carry out the investigation process alone. Few other NGOs and local trade unions were also part of the investigation process. Their investigation report also confirmed that this unfortunate incident is in no way connected with our factory.
What sort of a system do you have to resolve the workers’ grievances and how are you strengthening the overall system?
We have zero tolerance towards any form of sexual harassment, abuse or exploitation. We have several in-house grievance redressal mechanisms in our factories – Grievance Redressal Committee for addressing occupational grievances; ICC for addressing sexual harassments; Workforce Representatives Committee – for work / benefits related concerns; Health & Safety Committee – for health & safety concerns; and Dining Committee – for canteen-related concerns.
All our women employees have access to participation and decision making of various committees in the workplace.
The grievance details received are registered, attended, rectified and recorded in the respective log books. SAVE is a part of our factory’s ICC as external member and now we have also included a women lawyer in our ICC committee.
To further strengthen our grievance redressal mechanisms, we have additionally rolled out the hotline grievance mechanism in our Natchi factory in association with a reputed audit firm based at UK, They will exclusively summarise and communicate the grievances details to us, on receipt of which, we will share the action/steps taken in detail to them.
We are also working out with our business partners for associating with any relevant organisation/stakeholders that can help us to improve the working condition and safety of our employees.
We are even in the process of implementing an app (Worker Engagement Tool) to directly connect with employees for facilitating increased engagement of employer-employee relationship. This app will not only have the provision for sharing the grievances but will also have communication tools like payslips, training tools, e-learning courses, etc.
We also carry out counselling programmes on various topics through external expertise for both our middle management employees and workers on a regular basis.
What is the gender composition in your factory? To what extent, you are keen on women empowerment?
The present gender ratio in our factory is 80 per cent women and 20 per cent men. We are making our sincere efforts to sustain women employees’ ratio at all levels. Our workers who are mostly women/junior staff category get promoted to the supervisor category on regular basis.
We provide equal employment opportunities at all levels and make them financially independent. We ensure equal rights to promotion, job security, all benefits and conditions of service, training and retraining.
Similarly, we ensure enjoyment of all legal rights and fundamental freedom including freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of association, etc.
What are all the other measures taken for your employees’ well-being?
Our company provides educational assistance to the employees who require it for themselves or for their family wards. We conduct counselling on personal development and well-being on a regular basis. Sports and recreational facilities have also resumed back in the associated dormitory facility. Weekend outings are organised for the hostel residents staying in the associated dormitory facility. We make sure that all festivals and important vacations are celebrated.