Tate and Lyle accused of not so fair trade sugar sourcing
Sugar company Tate & Lyle, which in 2008 announced its ambition to switch all of its retail sugar to Fairtrade, is facing a multi-million pound High Court lawsuit from Cambodian farmers, who claim the sugar giant knowingly profited from illegally seized land.
Lawyers acting for 200 villagers have accused Tate & Lyle of buying sugar from the Koh Kong Companies, despite being aware of allegations the Cambodian firm acquired its plantations unlawfully. The Koh Kong Companies allegedly seized the land from villagers, who claim they were evicted by force after being subjected to ‘multiple instances of arson, theft and wrongful damage’. Villagers also suffered the theft of their livestock, according to the claim, while a local activist named An In was murdered in 2007 while taking photographs of land being cleared for development. Koh Kong later converted the land to grow sugar cane and convert it to raw sugar for export to Tate & Lyle. The first consignment of 10,000 tonnes of sugar, part of a five-year contract with Koh Kong, allegedly arrived at Tate & Lyle’s Silvertown refinery on the Thames in June 2010. Tate & Lyle ‘knew that the villagers were the owners of the raw sugar or ought to have known given its position as a leading player in the sugar market’, the claim says. The firm ‘wrongfully deprived’ the villagers of their property for its own benefit, according to the document. The Cambodians want Tate & Lyle to pay them for the consignments of sugar it has received from Koh Kong, claiming they are the rightful owners of anything produced on their land. Their claim could be as high as £10million, based on estimates of the amount of sugar the land can produce, as well as damages and interest accrued on the proceeds of any sales.
The case was filed in the High Court against both Tate & Lyle plc and former sugar refining and golden syrup subsidiary Tate & Lyle Sugars, sold to American Sugar Refining in 2010 in a £211million deal. Tate & Lyle Sugars says the land was legally purchased by the Koh Kong Companies, but also acknowledges: ‘Land ownership in Cambodia is difficult to establish, due to the country’s evolving legal and political structures following the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime.’ Jones Day, the law firm acting for the villagers, declined to comment, as did Tate & Lyle plc.
That this has occurred since Tate & Lyle's apparent announcement to go Fairtrade highlights the limits to this commitment – whilst the company clearly wants the commercial benefits of marketing its sugar as Fairtrade to increasingly conscious consumer, it is quite clearly happy to source the sugar it sells on to other companies from plantations associated with human rights abuses. Ethical Consumer calls on Tate & Lyle to make a company wide commitment to switch ALL of its sugar supply chain to Fairtrade.
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