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Criminal Charges Filed Against Former Tesco Supplier

After conducting what was criticized as a “sham” probe into forced labor allegations at a former Tesco supplier, Thai police have brought criminal charges against the factory for a litany of abuses, including fraud, coerced overtime, withholding immigration documents and illegally using workers’ bank cards.

Authorities, the Guardian reported Friday, returned to interview more than 50 workers at V.K. Garment in the western city of Mae Sot following a one-day investigation in early January that cleared the facility of breaking any labor laws.

Tesco is among a group of companies facing legal action from 130 former V.K. Garment workers and one child, all of them Burmese migrants, for being “unjustly enriched” by the grueling hours they put in to make F&F clothes on poverty wages between 2017 and 2020. ​​Together with Ek-Chai Distribution System Company Limited, which was owned by Tesco until 2020, and auditing firms Intertek Group and Intertek Testing Services, Britain’s largest retailer is also being accused of “negligence” for “permitting, facilitating and/or failing” to prevent the dire and unsafe conditions, which led to the rape of a seven-year-old girl by one of the manufacturer’s employees in the on-site dormitories in 2018.

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Police told the Guardian that the second round of interviews found that V.K. Garment “had committed offenses,” officially charging the suppliers at the end of January. They denied their initial inquiry had found no illegal activity, contradicting what they said at the time.

“We do not have any concerns or pressure from any organizations, who [said] our investigation was too rushed and perfunctory,” said Police Col. Monsak Kaew-on, superintendent of Mae Sot police station. “We confirm that we are working on the basis of accuracy and fairness under the legal framework in order to prove the facts. If we find any offenses against the law, we are ready to proceed in order to make justice for everyone.”

He said that law enforcement will be interviewing another 50 workers this week but that they have sufficient evidence, in terms of both documents and witnesses, to prosecute V.K. Garment and its associates. V.K. Garment did not respond to a request for comment.

Oliver Holland, partner at law firm Leigh Day, which filed the suit in the British High Court in December, said that he’s pleased to learn of the Thai police’s new findings.

“However, our clients experienced further serious labor abuses whilst working at the factory including allegations of forced labor,” he said in a statement obtained by Sourcing Journal. “We hope that the further investigations by the Thai police will reveal these further abuses in a timely manner so that our clients can get justice.”

Workers told the Guardian that V.K. Garment paid them in cash but opened bank accounts to make it look as if they were being paid the minimum wage. In the complaint, they said the pressure to fulfill large F&F orders was so “intense” that they had to put in 99-hour workweeks that began at 8 a.m. and ended at 11 p.m. from Monday to Saturday and 5 p.m. on Sunday unless they were behind schedule. Workers alleged that they were frequently unable to take breaks to eat, drink or use the bathroom. They also received only one day off each month, with no holidays.

Tesco declined to comment further on the case, referring Sourcing Journal instead to a previous statement where it noted that it wasn’t responsible for operations at 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 said 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 has also denied culpability in V.K. Garment’s employment conditions. Intertek did not return an email requesting comment, though it has previously said that “as a responsible business,” it takes the matters that have been raised “very seriously.”

The Clean Clothes Campaign, the garment industry’s largest consortium of trade unions and labor-rights groups, said it welcomed the criminal charges but that they do not go far enough. The brand-backed and promoted mode of social auditing that allows such abuses to continue should also face greater scrutiny, it said.

“They do not cover the forced labor and illegally low wages suffered by the V.K. Garment workers,” said urgent appeals campaigner Ilana Winterstein. “Abuses such as these are key issues across the global garment industry, and we urgently need robust legislation that holds brands to account for violations in their supply chains, and that holds social auditing firms liable for signing off on exploitation and protecting brand reputation rather than workers’ rights.”

Anna Bryher, director at Labour Behind the Label, a Bristol-based workers’ advocacy group, agreed. While the new findings bolster the workers’ case for compensation being brought in the U.K. courts, she said, they also “don’t change the fact” that Tesco “profited from serious labor abuses and were complicit in the case.”

“Thai police need to go further and acknowledge the full extent of forced labor, wage theft and financial fraud that took place at the supplier in a systematic and deliberate exploitation of people,” Bryher told Sourcing Journal. “Auditors who equally failed to address the forced labor and wage theft at the factory are a significant part of this [system]. Their role must not be forgotten in this injustice.”