UK Sugar Firm Investigating Child Labor Claims

U.K. sugar firm Tate & Lyle on Wednesday said it was looking into recent allegations of child labor on two plantations in Koh Kong province it has been buying sugar from since 2010, but rebuked NGOs for not bringing the claims to its attention sooner.

The allegations of child labor most recently went public in a July 9 article in The Guardian newspaper.

Following threats by Tate & Lyle to sue the paper over a video clip accompanying the article purporting to show children working on the Thai-owned plantations, local NGOs put out a joint statement on Tuesday coming to the videographer’s defense and backing up The Guardian story.

Tate & Lyle said the NGOs should have come to the firm with their evidence sooner.

“We are really saddened that these organizations did not bring their allegations to our attention in January when they claim to have obtained ‘evidence,’ but preferred instead to wait five months before using it for P.R. [public relations] purposes. You’d have thought that any organization that truly had the interests of children at heart would have raised their concerns immediately,” a spokesman for Tate & Lyle firm said.

As for the allegations themselves, the spokesman added, “we are examining these quickly and properly and will not be rushed by news releases from organizations that have sat on their alleged evidence for months.”

Eang Vuthy, executive director of Equitable Cambodia, one of the NGOs that came to The Guardian’s defense, said they first heard about children working on the plantations from local families last year.

He said the gathering of evidence and taking it to the firms and bodies like the European Union, which gives the sugar duty free access to the U.K, was an ongoing process.

Mr. Vuthy said Tate & Lyle should be more concerned about doing a better job of monitoring its suppliers than chastising NGOs. “They should regularly monitor their suppliers,” he said. “You can’t expect them to always follow the policies.”

He welcomed news that the firm was now examining the child labor claims but said it should hand the job to an independent body now that it was being sued in the U.K. by several of the Koh Kong families whose children allegedly work on the plantations.

Two hundred Koh Kong families are suing Tate & Lyle for profiting from land they claim was stolen from them in 2006 to create the sugar plantations. Tate & Lyle insists it did nothing wrong.

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