ASR Group-owned Tate & Lyle Sugars is considering legal action against The Guardian newspaper over a story published this week accusing the sugar giant of working with a Cambodian supplier that employed child labour among other human right abuses.
“We are aware of serious and severe inaccuracies in this story and are considering legal options,” a Tate & Lyle Sugars spokesperson told us this morning.
The Guardian story included an 8-minute video that detailed child labour use on KSL Group sugar farms Tate & Lyle Sugars has sourced from in Kho Kong, Cambodia, since 2011. It also accused the Cambodian government of evicting locals from their land, often by force, before leasing it to Thai-based KSL.
“We have asked The Guardian to produce evidence this video was shot on KSL farms but have received no supporting evidence that may show where this film was shot,” he said.
"But these are not KSL farms, they are not the tools they use. These are definitely not their farms."
KSL: “...there are not now, nor have ever been, any children working on our farms”
A KSL spokesperson said this morning that, “there are not now, nor have ever been, any children working on our farms. Our policies do not allow the use of child labour.”
He said the company paid the Cambodian government US$20,000 (€15,300) per year for thousands of hectares of land it used for sugar cane farms. The government began claiming land in 2006 after EU incentives grew, provoking many NGOs to criticise the EU policy for encouraging exploitation of local peoples for commercial gain.
Tate & Lyle Sugars said KSL had its farming practices audited and approved by a third party.
Court actions and petitions
Displaced Cambodian families have taken the matter up in the High Court in London, seeking compensation from Tate & Lyle Sugars over its KSL links. The action alleges KSL inappropriately influenced the government to make the land available and resorted to violence against villagers.
The London branch of the legal firm representing the villagers, Jones Day, would not comment on the matter.
In another matter, Equitable Cambodia, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights (LICADHO) and other Cambodian NGOs in May filed a complaint on behalf of more than 600 Cambodians with the Thai National Human Rights Commission against another Thai sugar processor, Mitr Phol Sugar Corporation.
In the petition, they alleged, “systematic, serious abuses have taken place in the issuance and cultivation of the Thai company’s three enormous economic land concessions”.
About 97% of Cambodia's €10m sugar exports went to the EU last year under the EU-backed Everything But Arms programme to encourage trade. Tate & Lyle Sugars bought 99% of that sugar which accounted for about 3% of its total sugar buy.
But it said it had only ever received two sugar shipments from KSL – one in May 2011 and one in May 2012. There was no commitment to a shipment this year or next, it said.
The Guardian newspaper did not respond to requests for comment.
Tate & Lyle Sugars statement
After publication, Tate & Lyle Sugars issued a statement which in part reads:
"We are shocked and disappointed at The Guardian, which for more than six months has withheld information and film footage of what it describes as 'one of hundreds of children, campaigners say, may work in plantations at harvest time, exporting sugar to the EU through British sugar giant Tate & Lyle.' This has denied us the opportunity to verify the claims and to take swift action to protect any child who may be at risk.
"Tate & Lyle Sugars has conducted numerous visits to our supplier's facility and has commissioned a review by an independent, globally-recognised organisation. At no point has there been any suggestion or evidence of child labour. KSL has also repeatedly assured us that, despite the legal working age in Cambodia being 15, they do not employee anybody under 18-years-old and have robust systems in place to ensure this is the case.
"The Guardian has been communicating with Tate & Lyle Sugars since early June in relation to claims by farmers that the Cambodian government seized their land and sold it to one of our suppliers, KSL, a Thai company. As soon as The Guardian put forward these allegations, we immediately responded with a request for information. Despite repeated requests, The Guardian has provided no information."