Tate & Lyle settle out-of-court for human rights abuses with Koh Kong residents.

Tate & Lyle settle out-of-court for human rights abuses with Koh Kong residents.
Koh Kong Province

An almost two-decade-long ordeal between 200 families in the Koh Kong province, Cambodia, local sugar production company, KSL Group and global conglomerate Tate & Lyle drew to a close in April this year as local families were compensated for land theft and human rights abuses dating back to 2006. 


The NGO Equitable Cambodia announced in April this year that families had reached an out-of-court agreement for an undisclosed financial payment. Further, 71 child labourers that were discovered at the plantation were also paid an undisclosed sum. 


What happened?


In 2006, village land in Chikor Leu Commune, land was forcibly seized by the military for local companies to grow sugar and attract global buyers. Koh Kong Plantation Co. Ltd., Koh Kong Sugar Co. Ltd. and KSL Group were awarded concessions to the 19 100 hectares of private land in the province in August 2006. 


The military set fire to homes, and evicted some 4 000 villagers despite much of their land existing outside of the awarded concessions. Further, none of the discussed restitution payments were delivered to those evicted from their land. The military responded harshly to local activists opposing the land seizure, resulting in two gunshot wounds, the burning of homes, 60 buffalo and cows stolen or destroyed and one murdered activist.


In interviews with The Guardian, locals described how, without space to farm for themselves, they had little choice but to work on the plantation run by KSL. The conditions were dire, earning as little as 79p a day cutting around 1 000 stems of sugar cane with children as young as nine among those on the plantations. Despite such serious allegations, in 2009, KSL won a contract to supply sugar to London-based food and beverage giant Tate & Lyle, who sourced their sugar from these plantations from 2011-2013. 


Legal disputes have loomed over the operation almost since it’s inception. Residents in February 2007 looked to sue Koh Kong Plantation and Koh Kong Sugar, though they were nullified with no success. Then in 2013, two high-profile law firms Jones Day and Rees Broome sued Tate & Lyle on behalf of the 200 families in the UK’s high court, declaring that they should have investigated the allegations against their supplier before continuing. In the same year, KSL Group offered the 200 families 1.5 hectares of land each, a meagre offering considering that many previous villagers, like Ann, who lost 15.5 hectares before the land grab.


Many villagers, like Ann, having previously eaten and sold the goods they grew, were now forced to borrow money to eat, afford healthcare and various other needs, creating huge amounts of debt within the community.


Whilst settling some kind of compensation can be seen as a small victory for the Chikor Leu community, the problem still remains; nations and governments, looking for international investment, abuse their citizens by stealing land, silencing dissent and detaching communities from their environments for the benefit of local companies. These businesses then abuse local labour and transfer capital to create small industry centres. Then, with low labour costs and already established industries, they are able to attract large conglomerates (who benefit from their detachment from the process of creating certain plantations, industrial sites etc.) then extract surplus value from these sites. Ignoring the potential violence that was enacted in order to establish such sites, conglomerates are then able to release statements such as that released by Tate & Lyle


“We recognise our responsibilities under the OECD guidelines for the multinational companies to use our leverage to ensure Cambodian ex-supplier KSL compensates the villagers for the damage they have suffered” 


So long as it is beneficial for large conglomerates, such as Tate & Lyle, to wilfully ignore the organised violence, abuse of workers and theft of land, that was needed in order to make the opportunity profitable for the conglomerate, these situations will continue to exist. These actions by multinationals is certainly not a rarity, in fact, it could be argued that this is the primary impetus for multinationals operating within global capitalism.


In fact, the attitude of Tate & Lyle towards local residents during the legal battles are indicative of an establishment intent on ignoring the impact of it’s presence and disregarding the lives of locals affected. In 2013, during the accusations that Tate & Lyle were aware of the illegalities of sugar production from Koh Kong, the conglomerate attempted to position itself as a mediator between locals and KSL. Elongating the process, Koh Kong residents expected to be financially compensation from Tate & Lyle as they were active in the legal process, but were not. Alongside the statements from Tate & Lyle that seemed to indicate that they were in support of justice for human rights abuses, locals were hopeful, but ended up disappointed as the company disregarded any responsibility placing it wholly on KSL Group.


In order to reduce the overall damage of the actions of conglomerates such as Tate & Lyle, it is beholden to the governments of nations where the multinational is registered, to demand that investments are routinely researched and vetted. Whilst the recent legal action has looked to establish Tate & Lyle’s responsibility, it is clear that in the current system, ensuring some minimal moral integrity within production is not profitable for the likes of Tate & Lyle, who will therefore do it’s best to detract itself from culpability. Often they will isolate themselves completely from the situation, to ensure profitability. impACT thus suggests that nations such as the UK, should establish separate institutions for the regulating of the international activities of the companies registered within them. 


Ensuring that all companies are routinely and effectively investigating investments and the legalities of the production chain. A regulatory body that is able ensure companies are carrying out due diligence could create an environment that is better at protecting global human and labour rights and to ensure that the United Kingdom is intent on protecting labour rights.


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