Thai factory used by Tesco faces criminal charges over treatment of workers

Thai factory used by Tesco faces criminal charges over treatment of workers

Thai factory used by Tesco faces criminal charges over treatment of workers

A police raid at VK garment factory in Mae Sot in December. Photograph: Thai police

Exclusive: VKG, where workers made jeans for Tesco’s Thai branch between 2017 and 2020, faces charges including fraud

Thai police have brought criminal charges against a clothing factory that was used by Tesco to make F&F clothes, over its treatment of workers.

The Guardian revealed in December that Burmese workers who produced F&F jeans for Tesco in Thailand reported being made to work 99-hour weeks for illegally low pay in terrible conditions.

VK Garment Factory (VKG) factory in Mae Sot faces criminal charges for fraud, using workers’ bank cards illegally, withholding their immigration documents and forcing them to work overtime.

The charges mark a major change in tack by Thai police after the Guardian reported that officials initially took one day to conclude no laws were broken in what was dubbed a “sham” investigation. Less than a month after that article was published, the police went back and interviewed 52 workers again and have now brought charges.

Tesco faces a landmark lawsuit in the UK from 130 former VKG workers who are suing Tesco for negligence and unjust enrichment. A seven-year-old girl, who was raped in the factory compound while her mother worked late making F&F clothes, is also a claimant.

The workers made F&F jeans for the Thai branch of Tesco’s business between 2017 and 2020. Tesco had no role in the day-to-day running of the factory and said it would have ended its relationship with the supplier “immediately” if it had identified issues of the kind at the time.

Police said the second interviews established that VKG “had committed offences,” and that criminal charges were filed at the end of January. They denied their initial investigation had found no laws were broken, contradicting a statement made at the time.

Police Col Monsak Kaew-on, superintendent of Mae Sot police station, said in a written interview: “We do not have any concerns or pressure from any organisations, who [said] our investigation was too rushed and perfunctory. 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 offences against the law, we are ready to proceed in order to make justice for everyone.”

The superintendent said workers had documentary evidence to support their statements and that the investigation was continuing. “Within the next week we plan to interview 52 Myanmar migrant workers. We have enough evidence to prosecute VK Garment and associates, both documents and witnesses.”

Oliver Holland, a partner at Leigh Day representing the workers in the UK lawsuit, welcomed the new Thai police investigation.

“However, our clients experienced further serious labour abuses whilst working at the factory including allegations of forced labour. 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,” he added.

Workers told the Guardian that the factory paid in cash but opened bank accounts for them to create a false trail that made it look as if they were being paid the minimum wage.

Roisai Wongsuban of Freedom Fund said there was frustration that charges had not been brought over allegations of illegally low pay and forced labour. “I expected the police inspector to address the issue of wage theft as workers have strong evidence of financial fraud related to wage payment.”

Wongsuban added: “This continued systematic and deliberate exploitation, together with the restriction in the freedom of movement through withholding workers’ travel documents, constitutes forced labour.”

In August 2020, 136 Burmese workers were dismissed from the factory, which they said happened after they demanded the minimum wage.

The same workers have also been seeking justice in the Thai labour court, but it ruled only that they were entitled to severance pay and notice pay. An appeal was lodged in December reiterating their case for the payment of unpaid overtime, holidays and topping up of illegally low wages.

Tesco did not comment on the latest charges but in an earlier statement a spokesperson said: “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.

“We understand the Thai labour court has awarded compensation to those involved, and we would continue to urge the supplier to reimburse employees for any wages they are owed.”

Sirikul Tatiyawongpaibul, the managing director of VKG, did not respond to requests for comment. She previously said the factory had not broken any laws. “We have provided safe working conditions to all employees,” she said. She added the claims should be presented in court and could not be commented on, given the pending appeal in Thailand.