On 1 January, Jeyasri Kathirvel, a 21-year-old garment-factory worker from Tamil Nadu’s Dindigul district, was murdered. The local police have accused two men, including her immediate factory supervisor, V Thangadurai, who confessed to committing the crime with his relative B Jeganathan, according to a police report. Jeyasri, who is Dalit, was working in the district’s Kaithayankottai village, at the Natchi Apparel factory—a unit of Eastman Exports, India’s fourth-largest garment-export company. The case did not receive any national media coverage, though it was covered by the foreign press, in reports that focused on lack of accountability for sexual harassment in garment factories, which has often led to similar incidents in the past. Yet, even much of that reporting ignored the role that caste plays in empowering perpetrators of sexual violence, and the impunity enjoyed by dominant caste men.
Thangadurai and Jeganathan are both from Dindigul’s Kombaipatti village, and members of the Kongu Vellala Gounder community, a dominant caste across much of western Tamil Nadu and classified as Backward Class in the state. A fact-finding report by the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union, an independent workers’ union, and the Asia Floor Wage Alliance, an international alliance of trade unions, human rights organisations and activists, released later that month found that Jeyasri had been continually sexually harassed by Thangadurai. Jeyasri and her mother, Muthulakshmi, are members of TTCU. However, several activists told me that framing the issue as one of sexual harassment alone hides the underlying structure of caste supremacy that defines hierarchies in garment factories.
Jeyasri had joined the Natchi Apparel factory, situated around twenty kilometres from her home, in 2018. She simultaneously pursued her bachelor of arts in Tamil, working evening through late night to fund her own education, and subsequently enrolled in a master of arts in a Tamil programme at the Arulmiga Palaniandavar College of Arts and Culture in the town of Palani. Jeyasri’s mother, Muthulakshmi, also worked in the same factory, folding garments, while Jeyasri was employed as a quality checker. “Jeyasri was a very promising student and her professor had promised her a job at the college when she completed her course,” Muthulakshmi told me.
The Natchi Apparrel factory had closed during the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown. When it reopened, only Jeyasri resumed, leaving her and her father, Kathirvel, to earn for their family of nine. Muthulakshmi told me that Jeyasri used to work demanding shifts, between 4.30 pm and 1 am, after her studies for the day. Thangadurai, who stayed at the company hostel, worked overlapping shifts with her.
Muthulakshmi told me that though Jeyasri was generally a quiet girl, she was forthright and vocal at work. “There was a recent incident—we came to know she had complained during buyer inspections that faulty pieces were coming in the line,” Muthulakshmi said. “This seems to have provoked Thangadurai, who casually told me once, ‘Your daughter is giving complaints in high places, tell her to cool down.’” Muthulakshmi said that when she asked her daughter what happened, she brushed it aside saying it was common at work. “He would call her often in the morning, but when we enquired why, she would say, ‘He is my supervisor, he’s calling to know about the pieces.’” Muthulakshmi said she had told her daughter to “quit her job and concentrate on studies” if she was facing difficulties with her supervisor. She added, “Sexual harassment is far more serious—if she had spoken to me about that, I would have told her to stop going to work immediately.”