The law firm behind a landmark suit against Tesco has accused Thai police of conducting a “sham” investigation into one of the British retail giant’s former garment manufacturers after taking just one day to determine that it hadn’t broken any labor laws.
“The reports we have received from NGOs observing the Thai police interviews appear to show that the investigation was completely ineffective and that due process was not followed,” Oliver Holland, partner at Leigh Day, said in a statement that was first reported by the Guardian and later obtained by Sourcing Journal. “Reports of workers having their answers to questions written down then deleted, being cut off from giving full answers and officers refusing to take notes of their answers suggests that the investigation is purely for appearances, a complete sham with no desire to get to the truth of the conditions faced by our clients.”
According to a legal claim that Leigh Day filed on behalf of 130 Burmese migrant workers and one migrant child in December, V.K. Garment, a facility in the western city of Mae Sot that until two years ago made clothes for Tesco’s F&F range, inflicted punishing hours and sub-minimum wages on its employees, “trapping them in a cycle of forced labor and debt bondage” between 2017 and 2020. V.K. Garment, the complaint said, also housed the migrants in “tiny” dormitories that were so “unsafe and unsecure” that a seven-year-old girl was raped by an employee of the factory in 2018.
Besides Tesco, action is being brought against Ek-Chai Distribution System Company Limited, which was owned by Tesco until 2020, and auditing firms Intertek Group and Intertek Testing Services, which greenlit V.K. Garments’ working conditions and Tesco’s F&F products. Tesco and Intertek’s audits at the factory, the complaint said, failed to identify, report or adequately remediate the “unlawful activities” that harmed workers both on the production floor and in its housing. Instead, they were “unjustly enriched” at the expense of the workers and should therefore be liable for restitution under Thai law.
Thai police raided the factory shortly after the legal complaint was made public, according to local media. Though this blitz was followed by a flurry of interviews with more than 100 of the complainants, witnesses described the process as being more performative than productive. Former ironing worker Ye Zaw Zo told the Guardian that the “one-side” investigation was a “waste of time” after he saw an officer erase his comments about illegal pay from a screen. He said he was also prevented from giving complete responses to the questions posed.
These “reported failures,” which NGO observers detailed in a dossier that they delivered to authorities last week, further illustrate that Burmese workers are “not afforded proper protection by the Thai authorities and that it is almost impossible for Burmese garment workers to achieve access to justice in Thailand,” said Holland, who added that this was one reason his clients wished to raise their case in the British court.
Tesco declined to comment further on the case, pointing instead to a previous statement where it said that it was not responsible for running the factory and that it would have cut ties with the supplier “immediately” had it been made aware of the issues at the time they took place.
“Protecting the rights of everyone working in our supply chain is absolutely essential to how we do business. In order to uphold our stringent human rights standards, we have a robust auditing process in place across our supply chain and the communities where we operate,” a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal in December. “Any risk of human rights abuses is completely unacceptable, but on the very rare occasions where they are identified, we take great care to ensure they are dealt with appropriately, and that workers have their human rights and freedoms respected.”
Ek-Chai, Tesco’s Thai subsidiary until 2020, likewise denied culpability because it was not involved in V.K. Garment’s employment conditions. Intertek said that it was unable to comment while legal proceedings are underway, but that “as a responsible business,” it takes the matters that have been raised “very seriously.” V.K. Garment, which produces denim, underwear, T-shirts, jackets, loungewear and more, did not respond to an email requesting comment, though Sirikul Tatiyawongpaibul, the factory’s managing director, told the Guardian last month that the allegations were “hearsay” and that its rules and regulations have been in line with Thai law.
These denials aren’t surprising to Dominique Muller, policy director at Labour Behind the Label, a Bristol-based nonprofit that campaigns on behalf of garment workers.
“It is a shame that workers are once again being denied the ability to provide their story and to prove the exploitative working conditions at the factory,” Muller told Sourcing Journal. “In our experience, many legal processes in production countries are often focused on minimizing blame for the authorities and for employers and in many cases denying remediation for workers. Workers often have to go through long court processes in order to claim redress and all too often employers fail to make court-ordered payments.”
What the case highlights, however, is the “vital need” for more oversight in the industry to ensure that global brands like Tesco cannot “simply shrug off their responsibility to workers who have helped make them profit after profit,” she said. It was only on Thursday that a London think tank called the High Pay Centre revealed that the average CEO has already earned in less than an hour what a garment worker might make in a year. Tesco CEO Ken Murphy, who raked in 4.7 million pounds ($5.7 million) in 2022, exceeded the annual wage of a Bangladeshi worker in just 20 minutes, Muller pointed out.
Ilana Winterstein, urgent appeals campaigner at the Clean Clothes Campaign said that Tesco is falling back on the “tired excuse” of using audits as a way of upholding workers’ rights despite the “dramatic and ongoing failings” of the current approach to due diligence.
“The lack of response from the Thai police when faced with evidence of abuse, highlights the vulnerability of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand and the extreme difficulties they face when seeking justice,” she told Sourcing Journal. “Auditing companies, such as Intertek in this case, do little beyond protect brand reputation. Accountability is long overdue in the garment industry.”
Holland agreed that large businesses like Tesco should not be allowed to rely on “ineffective” local investigations to satisfy their due diligence responsibilities.
“Not only should Tesco and Intertek step up and compensate the workers for the harm they have suffered, but they should also be doing their own robust reviews of all their supply chains and audit reports to ensure this type of alleged abuse isn’t happening elsewhere,” he said.