After I published ‘Management by Violence – Shahi Exports Way‘, I received this mail which I am reproducing without edit. You will see that the WRC report has finally led to reinstatement of 15 employees and dismissal of delinquent managers. Among things that mattered was also ‘Bollywood star Sonam Kapoor, who recently married a top Shahi executive, also faced pressure from advocates: since she has spoken out on violence against women in India, would she speak to her husband about ending such violence at his company’s factories?’ Interesting factors work in Industrial relations. Congratulate WRC for leading this campaign.
“It won’t be a sin if people kill you and get rid of you. You should be shot and disposed of. No one will miss you.”
This is what a manager at a factory in Bangalore, India, said to a worker leader earlier this year, before ordering other workers to “kill her.” They nearly strangled her and beat her so badly she was hospitalized.
This was only one incident in a campaign of violence and abuse led by the factory’s managers in retaliation for workers’ organizing efforts: beatings, death threats, gender and religion-based slurs, and threats of mass firings that concluded with 15 workers being fired. The factory is owned by Shahi Exports—the largest apparel manufacturer in India.
Fortunately, the WRC verified recently that our months of work and pressure on buyers have led to a victory: the 15 workers have been reinstated with back pay, responsible managers have been terminated, and Shahi has agreed to recognize the workers’ union and negotiate with them going forward.
The violence began in April after workers formed a union and began petitioning the company for better working conditions, including higher wages. Shahi workers earn about $.62 per hour. The minimum wage had been set to rise this year, but Shahi and other companies successfully lobbied the state government to cancel the scheduled increase.
Faced with appeals from its own workers to raise wages, Shahi managers responded by verbally abusing, physically attacking, and firing many of the new union’s leaders. These attacks included:
Calling a male worker (whose mother also works at the factory) a “son of a whore,” threatening to send thugs to kill his family, and leading others in beating him;
Saying of one female union leader, “These whores are trying to close the factory. Beat her and kill her,” before this worker was also beaten, had her clothes torn, and was robbed.
Telling a male worker, “Your caste is only fit to clean bathrooms. How dare you ask for an increase in wages?” before leading other employees in beating and robbing him.
Describing another female worker, before she was beaten, by saying, “Her caste is meant to burn dead people and that is what she should be doing. Beat her and throw her out.”
In response to requests for assistance, the WRC conducted our investigation in mid-April, and sent our detailed findings to companies sourcing from the factory, which included Abercrombie & Fitch, Benetton, H&M, and Columbia Sportswear. We urged these companies to tell Shahi it had to stop violating international norms, Indian law, and these brands’ own codes of conduct—or else face losing their business.
When brands gave a lukewarm response, refusing to ensure that Shahi respect workers’ freedom of association, the WRC published a report detailing our findings. Media, including The Guardian, covered the story extensively. Activist groups and leaders called on brands and the factory to respect workers’ associational rights. Bollywood star Sonam Kapoor, who recently married a top Shahi executive, also faced pressure from advocates: since she has spoken out on violence against women in India, would she speak to her husband about ending such violence at his company’s factories?
Finally, Shahi agreed to not only reinstate all 15 workers with back pay, but to fire the managers responsible for attacking them. And they signed an agreement committing to work productively with the union. This sets a powerful precedent. In most cases of retaliation, unfortunately, managers are free to attack worker leaders and unions with impunity—in fact, such behaviour is often rewarded. At our urging, brands reversed these incentives at Shahi, sending a clear signal to managers at other factories in India—and beyond—that retaliation against unions will be punished, not rewarded.
Meanwhile, the courageous worker-leaders, who continued their struggle in the face of violence, slurs, and death threats, are now back in the factory helping the workforce seek better wages and conditions.
We will continue to monitor the situation at Shahi to ensure that the factory upholds its commitment to respect the workers’ union.
Thank you, as always, for your support of the WRC, which helps makes our crucial work of defending labour rights possible.
Director of Development & Strategic Partnerships