By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India, Feb 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women facing sexual harassment in India's garment industry have no place to turn as textile companies are shirking their legal duty to investigate abuse allegations, activists said on Thursday.
Big textile companies are legally required to form committees to look into sexual harassment complaints but the vast majority haven't done so, according to campaigners.
In response to a right to information query filed by a charity in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the state government said it had no record of committees being formed or functioning in more than 3,000 mills across four districts.
"The reply shocked us," said R. Karuppusamy of the Rights Education and Development Centre.
"Young girls work in this industry and there is enough documented evidence to show that there is abuse and exploitation inside the mills. But there are no complaint committees for them to approach," Karuppusamy said.
Much of India's $40 billion garment and textile industry, which employs an estimated 45 million mostly female workers, operates in the informal sector and is poorly regulated.
A 2016 report by women's rights groups Sisters for Change and Munnade said 60 percent of women garment workers in the southern city of Bengaluru faced intimidation and violence in "hostile" workplaces.
It stated that one in seven woman garment workers had been raped or forced to commit a sexual act.
This reflects the situation across all Indian textile hubs, including Tamil Nadu and Gurgaon in north India, activists say.
"On paper, many mills will show you that committees exist but they are not real," said S. Thivyarakhini of the all-women Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union.
"We deal with cases everyday where the only option for women who face harassment is to quit their jobs, something many cannot afford to do."
The 2013 Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act states that any workplace with more than 10 employees must set up an internal complaints committee and make it accessible to workers.
In four Tamil Nadu districts known as the "textile valley of India" officials provided no data on committees.
In another district, details of only one district-level committee were given, prompting Karuppusamy to file an official complaint with local government and police in January, demanding an audit of all mills.
Labour department officials were unavailable for comment.
Mill managers said multiple redress mechanisms were available and awareness programmes were conducted to inform workers of their rights.
"In Tiruppur, we have many systems that are functioning," said Raja M. Shanmugam of the Tiruppur Exporters' Association.
A national package unveiled in 2016, aiming to generate 10 million jobs and boost textile exports by $30 billion, has also made it mandatory for firms applying for tax benefits to form committees, Shanmugam added.
"There are some who don't have them but they will form them soon enough if they want to be part of the industry's growth," he said.
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Ed Upright and Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)