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Press release: Protesters to stage demonstration at Intertek Group AGM over Burmese worker exploitation

by | May 24, 2024 | Press release

 

For immediate release: Friday 24th May, 0800

    • Labour Behind the Label to question social audit firm Intertek on their failure to detect forced labour at a Thai garment factory making jeans for Tesco

    • Demonstrators will stand outside with images of Burmese workers who are bringing the lawsuit against Intertek for negligence

    • Board members will be asked whether they will settle the suit with the VK Garment workers and meet with workers to hear their petition

Human rights campaigners will question the board of Intertek Group PLC today at their AGM taking place in London, over claims that social audits carried out by the firm failed to protect migrant workers from forced labour exploitation.

At the Intertek AGM today Labour Behind the Label will read a statement from the 130 former VK Garment workers who are currently bringing legal action against both Tesco and Intertek for the conditions they faced while making jeans in Thailand [1].

Campaigners will ask the Intertek board if they will accept responsibility for the catastrophic failures that led to auditors not picking up on 90-hour work weeks, debt bondage, bank fraud and wage violations experienced by workers at the factory. The board will come under pressure to commit to a sit-down with the impacted workers and engage in a legal settlement to their claim, as they announce a healthy profit increase of 6% for 2023 [2].

Silent protesters will also stand outside in visual solidarity, with cut out images of the VK Garment workers holding signs showing their petition demands.

Campaigners will also raise questions on how Intertek as a company will mitigate for the obvious failures in the service they provide to fashion brands worldwide.

Anna Bryher, Policy Lead for Labour Behind the Label, said:

“This is a blatant case where social auditing failed to detect, address or prevent exploitation of a predominantly female migrant workforce. The former VK Garment workers are being plunged further into debt as they seek justice for the horrific abuse they suffered. Meanwhile, Intertek has profited from a lucrative contract with grocery giant Tesco, while failing to deliver the very service it advertises. Intertek stood by and watched, and did not report the abuse auditors witnessed including threats, fraud, excessive hours and more. Tesco and Intertex must pay VK workers and settle the legal case being brought against them.”

“Social auditing is a multi-million pound industry that provides a fig leaf for abuse in garment factories worldwide [3]. Fashion brands pay social audit firms to provide plausible deniability, while everyone in the industry knows rights abuse is endemic, particularly in migrant worker regions like Mae Sot where the VK factory is situated, where the risk is even higher. Social auditing has been shown to not only fail to identify human rights violations, but also actively undermine human rights protection. The Rana Plaza building which collapsed in Dhaka housed factories where social audits had taken place just months before the disaster, giving green lights to brands where there should have been warnings.”

The full text of the question and the workers’ statement being put to the board of Intertek Group PLC is available below [4].

ENDS

Notes for editors:

      • Labour Behind the Label is a campaign that works to improve conditions and empower workers in the global garment industry.
      • The Intertek Annual General Meeting will be held at the Marlborough Theatre, No. 11 Cavendish Square, London W1G 0AN at 9.00 a.m. on Friday, 24 May 2024.

For media enquiries please contact:

Anna Bryher – anna@labourbehindthelabel.org // +447786832035
Maya Thomas-Davis – maya@labourbehindthelabel.org // +447491669231

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/dec/18/workers-in-thailand-who-made-ff-jeans-for-tesco-trapped-in-effective-forced-labour

[2] Intertek 2023 Full Year Announcement

https://www.intertek.com/siteassets/investors/2024/intertek-2023-full-year-results-announcement.pdf

[3] Labour Behind the Label briefing on ‘Intertek and the failures of social auditing’: https://labourbehindthelabel.org/wp-content/uploads/2024/05/Intertek-briefing.pdf

[4] Question text:

Labour Behind the Label Question to Intertek board:

My name is Alena Ivanova, I’m here today from the Human Rights NGO Labour Behind the Label, and I’m bringing a question from a group of Burmese migrant workers from the VK Garments factory in Thailand.

In November 2022, the media reported that Burmese workers who produced F&F jeans for Tesco in Thailand were trapped in forced labour conditions, working 99-hour weeks for illegally low pay. Tesco had employed Intertek to deliver social auditing services at the supplier for more than 2 years but audits did not accurately identify or report the forced labour, wage violations, debt bondage, bank fraud and exploitation being visited on the workers.  A lawsuit has been launched by Leigh Day solicitors on behalf of 130 of the VK Garment workers seeking damages from both Intertek and Tesco for alleged negligence.

I’m going to read now a short statement from the workers who wanted their voices to be heard here today.

We were workers from VK Garment Factory. We started working in 2017. Most of us were operators in Sewing Lines, and we received wages less than the official minimum wage. We had to work until 11pm, until midnight. Not only does this not comply with the labour laws in Thailand, but we did not receive any benefits under the laws. We only got one day off per month. The abnormal hard work seriously impacted the health of some workers. 

The factory management opened Thailand bank accounts for us. However, they withheld workers’ bank books and debit cards. 

Workers were taught what to answer to the audit team. The factory management threatened to dismiss us if we refused to do so. If we did not lie to the audit team, it meant that there would be a lower amount of orders from suppliers. Workers would face wage reductions due to a lack of orders. During the COVID period, although we had to work longer than usual, we only received between 1000 THB and 3500 THB. It was insufficient for our survival. When we could no longer tolerate it, we informed the audit team of the working conditions. The audit team had promised to protect us, but they did not follow through. After the audit team left, the factory management scolded us and dismissed those who informed about the labour rights violations inside the factory. The factory management intimidated workers who told the audit team the truth. We believe that the audit team, Intertek, was responsible for getting us fired. 

We are blacklisted by management due to our actions to express the actual situation in the workplace. Now, we are filing lawsuits against the employers and against Tesco and Intertek while we are unemployed and struggling to survive. The period of the case is already more than three years and nine months. So, we would like to ask Intertek to settle the legal case against them and pay us so we can rebuild our lives.

So, to the first part of my question, will the board acknowledge its part in the exploitation that was carried out on the VK Garment workers through failure to act, and agree to engage in settlement discussions with their lawyers Leigh Day?

Secondly, will the board of Intertek commit to meet with the VK workers to hear their petition and their account of how Intertek’s social auditing failed to protect their rights, in order to better understand how social auditing failures can be mitigated?

Postscript: Photos from this action are available here https://drive.google.com/drive/u/1/folders/1-8U7PAAS5rTpHsPB-4-3VkvAT7GV3y-g