Sexual exploitation in supply chains: what can consumers do?
Liberty Bridge and Samantha Freeze discuss what consumers can do to combat sexual exploitation in supply chains.
Posted on 26 May 2021
On International Women’s Day, many of us raised our hands and snapped a photo to pledge a commitment to end global gender inequality.
While taking a communal pledge shows strength and support, genuine change demands further action and, in this case, involves using consumer power to lobby for change.
The Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh and the factory fire at Ali Enterprises in Pakistan brought media attention to the unsafe working conditions of many factories abroad. Many well-known brands on the UK high street were shown to have sourced products from these factories in their supply chain. Initial consumer outrage put a dent in brands’ profits but only in the short term. Many brands synonymous with fast fashion have seen a rise in growth, through online sales, in the global COVID-19 lockdown.
Globally, women account for approximately 80% of the garment sector workforce. Recent reports have confirmed that widespread gender discrimination and sexual assault plagues the garment industry and yet women continue to be the largest consumers of fast fashion. A recent report found that per year millennial women spend 226% more on clothing than their male counterparts.
Spotlight on H&M
Founded in 1947, H&M is a Swedish clothing retailer with over 5000 stores worldwide. Despite a drop in profits due to the challenges of COVID-19, their gross profit in 2020 was a total £8.15 billion. The H&M Group has been markedly successful due to its fast fashion approach and significant online presence.
In March 2021, the Guardian published allegations of widespread sexual violence at factories in India with which H&M contracts. The murder of a 21-year-old Dalit garment worker named Jeyasre Kathiravel, who was raped and killed by her supervisor, propelled other women to come forward about their experiences in the factory. Twenty-five women have so far made allegations about a culture of verbal and sexual abuse within the factories. They condemn the factory’s grievance mechanisms for being ineffective and believe that honesty would result in them being fired. With their monthly salary a mere £80, the women cannot afford to come forward and complain about the harassment they endure daily, especially as many are their families’ main breadwinners and there is little alternate work available.
The allegations show the asymmetry in power between men and women in the factories, as there are only male supervisors thereby leaving the women completely vulnerable to the decisions of men. This power asymmetry combined with the daily pressure to meet production targets creates an environment where sexual assault and abuse can become normalized. One female worker told the Guardian, “All the supervisors at the factory are men. Every day we are constantly verbally abused, and they use sexual language and slurs against us”.
The women are employed by Natchi Apparels, which is owned by Eastman Exports, one of India’s largest garment manufacturers. Eastman Exports denied the allegations and were adamant that their grievance mechanisms were adequate. H&M has since pledged a third-party investigation and says that it is working closely with the members of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU).
However, it is clear from the systemic and continued abuse highlighted by the allegations that appropriate due diligence was not performed prior to contractual engagements. In fact, a report by the Global Labor Justice- International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF) unveiled several instances of gender-based violence across H&M’s supply chains. The report determined that H&M was not enacting satisfactory measures to protect garment workers from harassment.
Leigh Day has also come across similar sexual exploitation of women in the tea picking industry. Leigh Day currently represents women who work on southern Malawi Tea plantations and have experienced alleged rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, coercion and discrimination by male workers. The claimants often submit to the sexual harassment for fear of losing their employment.
These women were at a loss for solutions when met with a similar power asymmetry in which men dominate the managerial roles, thus allowing sexual harassment to become normalised. Lujeri and its UK headquartered parent company, multinational PGI, have been served with a claim issued in the High Court in London for a failure to protect female employees.
The Sunday Times reports that numerous supermarket tea brands have temporarily suspended Lujeri supplies pending further investigation.
In the case of the garment industry, many high street brands are based outside of the UK, which makes it challenging to hold them accountable in the UK courts. As a result, we must look to the consumers to pressure brands into making systemic changes.
Women are the biggest consumers of fast fashion, but by indulging in a brand’s latest sales, we are reinforcing exactly that which we pledge against, the systemic abuse and sexual exploitation of women. The most powerful action women can take to fight for the rights of female garment workers is to refrain from purchasing from companies who face repeated reports of exploitation in their supply chain.
Liberty Bridge is a senior associate solicitor in the international department.