‘I’m suing Tesco after working 99-hour weeks – I can’t afford to feed my child’

A group of migrants from Myanmar who say they worked 99-hour weeks making jeans for Tesco in Thailand claim their lawsuit against the retailer has left them struggling to feed their families.

The 130 migrants worked at the VK Garments factory in the western city of Mae Sot, making jeans, denim jackets, and other F&F clothing.

They sued Tesco in the English High Court for alleged negligence in 2022.

Tesco denies the accusations and has previously said the allegations against its supplier were “incredibly serious”.

The workers reported being trapped in conditions similar to forced labour, receiving well below the Thai minimum wage. They were awarded around 6.6 million baht [around £147,000] in Thailand in 2020, during a case against VK Garments

However they say it is not enough, and that they are yet to receive any compensation, after commencing legal action against Tesco in the UK in January 2022. The case continues.

One former worker, Thi Thi Aye said she had been forced to borrow money to take care of her two-year-old son after she was dismissed from the factory.

“I feel really sad because I don’t always have enough food for my child,” the 22-year-old from Myanmar told i. “I skip meals and have reduced my food intake. We’ve had to rely on vegetables you find here on the roadside.”

Phyo Phyo Mar, a mother of two, said she was working on the sewing line in the factory when she was dismissed after asking for better pay and conditions (Photo: Clean Clothes Campaign)

Ms Aye said she wanted to send her child to school because it was the “only way” the family could “escape” their difficulties, but was unsure how she would afford it, especially as she was carrying a 50,000 Thai baht (just over £1,100) debt.

Mother-of-two Phyo Phyo Mar said she had been working as a line leader on the sewing line in the factory when she was dismissed after asking for better pay and conditions.

The dismissed workers then “stood in front of the factory to demand their jobs back but the factory management didn’t like this and shared photos of the workers, so we got blacklisted from other factories,” she alleged.

Since being fired, the 38-year-old has applied for several jobs, but she said no one would hire her and she had fallen into debt. “It was really hard for me as I have a family and needed to provide for them,” she says. “So I started borrowing money.”

She asked neighbours to borrow money, and shops to give her what she needed if she promised to pay later. She also took out loans to pay for food, rent, and her children’s tuition.

Three years later, she owes 70,000 Thai baht (nearly £1,600) plus 20 per cent interest.

Unable to regularise her status in Thailand because of the cost of documentation, Ms Mar said she was hiding, afraid of being detained or deported back to Myanmar.

“The longer the case goes on, the more debt we gather,” she said. “With the money, I could pay the debt, have the chance to regularise my status, and then find a new job more easily.”

Following a damning audit report in August 2020, the workers say VK Garments tried to change their working conditions and asked them to fill in new job applications. When they refused, asking for a proper explanation or translation to Burmese, they say they were dismissed.

In October 2020, they were awarded around 6.6 million baht [£147,000] by the Thai labour court in their case against VK Garments. But they say they are entitled to far more. VK Garments has appealed, saying the figure is too high.

“From what we understand, management controlled their worker permits, immigration documents and access to many of their bank accounts, and housed many of the workers in unfit and overcrowded conditions where they slept on cement floors with little or no privacy,” Priscilla Dudhia, of the Clean Clothes Campaign, told i.

Also facing legal action as part of the UK case is Ek Chai, previously the Thai branch of Tesco’s business, and Intertek, the auditors who allegedly failed to identify any serious issues at the factory until July 2020.

Workers are hoping for compensation from Tesco, Ek Chai, and Intertek for wrongdoing because “they didn’t act reasonably in preventing the harms to workers”, according to Ms Dudhia.

Tesco, Ek Chai, and Intertek have denied all the allegations, and the case is still ongoing.

Tesco did not reply to a request for comment, but it has previously called the allegations “incredibly serious”, adding that “had we identified issues like this at the time they took place, we would have ended our relationship with this supplier immediately”.

VK Garments is still facing action after the workers filed a petition against them at the Thai Labour Department in October 2020, saying they are entitled 34 million baht (£758,000). The workers’ appeal failed, with the decision given in October, Ms Dudhia said, and they “are now looking to appeal to the Thai Supreme Court as a final attempt to secure their unpaid wages”.

More than three years since their dismissal, the workers say they are facing workers are facing poverty, joblessness, debt, detention, and deportation.

“They’ve been unable to find stable work with sufficient income and are therefore forced to rely on loans from informal lenders, with incredibly high interest rates, in order to feed themselves and their children, and cover rent and bills,” said Ms Dudhia.

“The wait is taking a significant toll, including on their mental health, adding to the psychological harm that the workers suffered whilst working at VK Garments.”

Ms Dudhia says that such cases are generally “likely to be a lengthy process because of delays and backlogs in the High Court.

“Tesco denies responsibility which, from Clean Clothes Campaign’s extensive experience, is consistent with how brands that sell garments tend to respond to such cases.

“The workers turned to the Thai courts in order to obtain their owed wages from VK Garments. But the Thai courts tend to side with the businesses in such cases. So the litigation in the UK is the workers’ only real hope for securing justice.”

Ms Mar and Ms Aye urged Tesco customers to remember the “tears of the workers” and “understand the hardship of the people who made the products”.

Ms Dudhia said: “Tesco makes huge profits, which are made possible by outsourcing to countries such as Thailand with migrant workers being paid illegally low wages and subject to appalling conditions.

“Companies like Tesco have the financial means to ensure that harms, such as the ones that were caused in this case, do not occur.”