7-year-old girl raped in Thai factory supplying clothes for Tesco while mother worked | Tesco | Popgen Tech
A seven-year-old girl was raped in unsafe accommodation at a clothing factory for Tesco in Thailand while her mother sewed F&F jeans late at night, it has emerged.
Her mother said she worked unpaid overtime until 10 p.m., when she returned to her room to find her daughter bleeding and suffering from rape by a co-worker.
She said an assistant manager at the factory told her not to call an ambulance because doctors might call the police.
The girl and her mother are plaintiffs in a landmark lawsuit brought in England against Tesco on behalf of 130 Burmese former workers at VK Garment (VKG), who are suing for alleged negligence and unjust enrichment. Tesco, which was not involved in the day-to-day management of the factory, said it only became aware of the incident this year and that if it had been alerted to it at the time it happened, it would have ended its relationship with VKG immediately.
Between 2017 and 2020, VKG employees produced jeans and other clothing for adults and children that were supplied to the Thai division of Tesco. Tesco said the clothes were only sold in the Thai market, although the Guardian has seen images of labels written in English on clothes made there. Profits from sales in Thailand flowed back to the UK.
The attack took place on August 4, 2018, when the girl was sleeping in the room with her younger sister. A 19-year-old man who lived in the next room was able to get in because their room only had a piece of cloth for a door and thin walls that didn’t reach the ceiling.
The rapist, who also worked at the factory, was sentenced to five years and four months in prison in December 2018.
The girl’s mother recalls returning to their room around 10:00 p.m. to find her eldest daughter bloodied and distraught. “She said to me, ‘Mom, someone has come and done me wrong.’
The mother, who has not been named by the Guardian, said her brother managed to catch the man but the factory “did nothing”.
She said the assistant manager of VKG was more worried about police inspections at the factory than helping her daughter. “He said, ‘Don’t call an ambulance.’ If you call an ambulance, the police will come and it will cause problems for our factory, so don’t call them.’
She added: “I felt helpless because I was working in their country, I had no experience here, we only depended on the factory and there was no one to help us.”
Eventually, she said, a social worker at another factory in the complex called an ambulance and the police, and they went to Mae Sot General Hospital. She said no one from VKG had spoken to her about what happened, but a manager from the factory visited the hospital and gave her about £20.
“I feel that VKG and Tesco should take responsibility for my daughter’s case, but they haven’t,” she said. “I was working and living at the factory when the accident happened, I told them and they didn’t even call an ambulance. They did not take any responsibility for us.”
The mother, whose trauma was evident as she described her daughter’s ordeal, said she had always worried about the children being alone in the top-floor room, but previously her main worry had been her toddler falling down the steep steps. She said she was made to feel bad for checking on her children every few hours and yelled at for doing so, even though she was only paid what she could earn.
Along with many other parents in the factory, she felt she had no choice but to work while her children were unsupervised in order to earn enough to feed the family.
“I felt unsafe in the dormitory that VKG provided us,” she said, and explained that while working, she worried about the children because there were steep stairs and “was afraid that they would fall or something would happen.”
She said she sews about 5,000 pairs of F&F jeans and pants a month and will work as fast as possible to buy time to run around and check on the kids. She said she worked until at least 10pm every night except Sunday – sometimes all night. She says she was usually paid around £4 a day, well below the £7 minimum wage at the time, and it depended on how much she could do.
“It was very horrible for my family,” she continued. “Even though we try to forget the past, what happened in VKG, we cannot forget it easily. When I worked there, I earned just enough to get enough food to feed my mouth. Life was not easy. I earned just enough for our family to survive.”
The family moved to Thailand in 2005 after struggling to find work in Myanmar, but now they are in debt and her husband has kidney problems. “I hoped that I would save money by working in Thailand and then return to Myanmar and settle with the money I saved in Thailand,” recalls the mother. “But it didn’t happen and now I can’t even go back.
Anna Barr, solicitor at Leigh Day law firm, which is prosecuting the case, said: “The disturbing sexual assault suffered by the complainant is absolutely appalling and a profound violation of her physical and psychological integrity.
“The applicant’s mother and child are badly injured. In their lawsuit, they claim that their living conditions were clearly unsafe and that privacy and security were dangerously limited. The applicants allege that the defendants Tesco undertook to prevent human rights violations in their supply chain and should have taken reasonable steps to ensure that this violation did not occur.’
A Tesco spokesman said: “This is a terrible incident and our thoughts are with the victim and everyone affected by this. If we had been notified of this at the time it occurred, we would have immediately terminated our relationship with that supplier. Unfortunately, we didn’t find out about this until earlier this year, more than a year after selling our business in Asia.”
Sirikul Tathiawongpaibul, managing director of VKG, would not comment on specific details of the rape case, but called the allegations by 21 workers interviewed by the Guardian “hearsay”. She said their claims about working conditions would have to be presented in court and could not be commented on given the case is pending in Thailand’s labor courts.
She said: “The company’s rules and regulations comply with Thai labor laws, employment and working conditions, conditions set by the Department of Labor and Welfare and customers… The company has fought the case with facts and has no plans to stop operations. It is necessary for the company to demand justice in the Thai legal process.”
Many factory workers lived in accommodations provided on site, which consisted of overcrowded rooms with concrete floors for sleeping and dirty pond water in buckets for washing. Workers said the rooms on the upper floor had no doors, only curtains, and the thin walls did not reach the ceiling, which did not ensure safety.
Several other workers described children wandering around the factory or waiting in rooms because their parents could not afford childcare.
One family said they had to rush their two-year-old daughter to hospital after a heavy vehicle fell on her leg while she was playing in a hammock attached to her. Her parents said the incident happened around 10 p.m. and said the manager told the father not to tell the police that it had happened at the factory. The x-ray was clear, but they said their daughter was not seriously injured.
The girl’s mother, Myat Soo Mon, 31, said: “I had to take the child to work. It is dangerous for children, but we had no choice. We had to continue our work.
“The factory is a bad place, it’s hard to work and take care of children there. But at the same time, we have to have money, so we have to work.”