Last month we launched our public campaign targeting Tesco and Intertek to settle the lawsuit that over 130 migrant garment workers in Thailand have initiated against the brand and its social auditor. Here is a little update.

Why are workers in Thailand suing Tesco and Intertek?

At the end of 2022 the Guardian ran a series of stories on the VK Garment factory and the abuse workers there endured over several years. The pieces are not an easy read.

Between 2017 and 2020 hundreds of migrant garment workers in Thailand were making jeans for Tesco’s F&F brand under horrific conditions. They worked excessively long hours for illegally low pay. Their documents were confiscated, their rights were trampled, they suffered various abuses.

But the VK Garment workers story is a story of organised resistance and workers fighting back. 

When they asked for higher wages and more protections at work, the people whose labour creates Tesco’s profits were summarily dismissed. Yet instead of accepting this injustice, the VK Garment workers called on the support of their union, and together with allies here in the UK they are actually suing both Tesco, and Intertek – the social auditors who helped them avoid responsibility. This is a huge step for these workers, and the potential for the garment industry and workers everywhere should not be underestimated.

Yet we know that the legal system is slow, and workers can’t always expect that they will get justice through the courts. That is why at Labour Behind the Label we’ve been busy putting pressure on ‘Britain’s favourite forced labour supermarket’ Tesco and Intertek to settle this case and pay their workers.

How have we been supporting the VK Garment workers?

As an organisation, we exist to support workers’ struggles everywhere and to enable individuals to demand change in our capacity as people, as members of communities and workplaces, not just as consumers. We know public pressure on brands works and in this case we wanted to remind Tesco that we’re here, that we see and hear the VK Garment workers and we will do all we can to amplify their demands and help them win their fight.

Last month, we challenged Tesco CEO Ken Murphy on his company’s continued reliance on the discredited practice of social auditing that fails to protect workers time and time again. In response, we got platitudes about their complex supply chain system and their commitment to human rights. But VK Garment workers’ human rights were violated continuously in the name of Tesco’s profit margins. The role of social auditing in the garment industry is complex, and often deeply damaging. Instead of more accountability, it offers less by allowing brands to outsource control and ultimately further delay responsibility for taking action. So we won’t accept this meagre concession from Tesco and will continue working to expose Intertek’s role in this case. 

We also couldn’t stand idly by and watch Tesco promote itself as a champion of LGBTQI+ rights while continuing to undermine workers rights and protections. It seems the retailer values human rights so much, they are one of the major sponsors of London Pride.

But what about the rights of those who were putting in 90-hour weeks to finish orders? What about the LGBTQI+ garment workers suffering abuse and poverty wages in their supplier factories? There’s no parade, no floats, no grand commitments for them. 

Pride is a protest. It’s a call to action to actively defend and fight for the rights won – and the rights yet to be won, by marginalised and exploited communities. Pride is a celebration of shared struggles. And Pride ought to be a threat to corporate interests. So, with the help of our trade union friends we took our campaign to the streets of London to remind Tesco that there is No Pride in Forced Labour. You can’t care for the rights of some of your workers while exploiting others. 

We got a very warm reception not just on the trade union bloc – thank you, Unison, ASLEF, GMB and all others, but also from those who have come out to celebrate Pride and watch the parade. It reminded us how important it is to bring demands to the corporations who seek the spotlight to promote their brand through pink-washing. London Pride has a long history of engaging with labour struggles, and it’s a legacy we vow to continue, no matter how many fossil polluters, debt financiers and forced labour producers try and take advantage of it.


What can you do?

So, what’s next? We’ve been told that the legal case proper will get going from October onwards. This means we’ve got the summer left to really pressure Tesco and Intertek into settling. The corporate calendar may have slowed down for the holiday season but remain active on social media in calling the companies out. We will also use this vital campaign to raise more awareness around social auditing as a method of avoiding responsibility.

If you haven’t already, make sure to sign our one-click tool to send a letter to Tesco CEO and Intertek CEO and demand that they settle this case. If you have – why not forward to a friend? Sharing our social media posts, spreading the message and signing up to hear more from Labour Behind the Label is a big boost to the workers – more visibility for them means a higher chance the companies will feel the threat and settle.