Tesco is facing a lawsuit over allegations that jeans from its F&F fashion range were made under forced labour conditions.
The supermarket giant, which retails jeans for 16 pounds, is being sued by 130 former workers from VK Garment Factury, a Thailand-based apparel manufacturer.
Allegations include working 99-hour weeks for less than 4 pounds per day. The case was brought to light by the Guardian, who said the mostly Burmese migrant workers produced the jeans beween 2017 and 2020. The daily wage in Thailand at the time was 7 pounds.
“Alleged negligence and unjust enrichment,” meant the migrants were “trapped in a cycle of forced labour”. The workers have collectively accused the supermarket of poor conditions in the factories, citing they slept on cement floors, working from 8am to 11pm, six days per week, with little or no privacy due to there being no locks, walls or ceilings.
“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,” Tesco said. In December 2020, Tesco completed the sale of its Thailand and Malaysia business for around 8 billion pounds.
Jeans produced for Thai market had garment labels in English
Tesco claims the jeans were produced solely for the Thai market, despite garment labels written in English. Profits from Thais sales reportedly went back to the UK. It is believed to be the first time a UK company has been threatened with litigation in the English courts over a foreign garment factory in its supply chain that it does not own, said the Guardian.
A tragic but common practise with migrant workers is to have their immigration documents or passports held by the factories, relying on employers for immigration status and permission to leave, travel or find employment elsewhere. In essence the workers were left in debt bondage.
UK law firm Leigh Day is handling the case, with Oliver Holland, the workers’ solicitor, telling the Guardian: “Tesco is one of the UK’s most profitable companies and our clients allege that they’re making vast profits through outsourcing the production, through workers being paid very low wages, working excessive hours, and under terrible conditions.”
“It is argued that this is all solely for the profit of the companies in the UK, and so that consumers can buy very cheap clothing. Clothing that costs as little as F&F clothing is likely to be causing harm somewhere along the supply chain and that is what we have seen in this case.”
Research by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) reveals that many garment workers who were fired during the pandemic have been denied compensation, in violation of the law and the labour rights obligations of the brands and retailers whose clothes they sewed.
VK Garment Factory is one of the 31 export garment factories identified in the WRC’s report, Fired, Then Robbed: Fashion brands’ complicity in wage theft during Covid-19, which still owed workers legally mandated terminal compensation as of April 2021.