UK activist faces Thai jail

Migrants suffer in the Thai fruit trade. Source: Wikimedia

A Bangkok criminal court is expected this week to rule in the case of a British researcher for his work on Thai labour rights abuses, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Andy Hall faces up to seven years behind bars if convicted of criminal defamation and violating the Computer Crimes Act. 

“Andy Hall coordinated important research about abuses of workers’ rights in Thailand and he should never have been prosecuted for his actions,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s regional director. “Whatever the verdict, the long and intensive court fight has had a distinctly chilling effect on other activists pressing for the protection of workers’ rights in Thai companies, many of which export their products to foreign consumers.”

In February 2013, the Natural Fruit Company Limited sued the British researcher in response to a probe by FinnWatch, which included information about rights violations at the company’s factory in Prachaub Kiri Khan province to the south of Bangkok.

“The cases are widely considered an example of judicial harassment by companies and governments and an attempt to silence a human-rights defender,” Finnwatch stated.

The Thai company, whose workforce is dominated by migrants from Myanmar, asserted that Hall defamed and damaged the firm by “broadcasting false statements to public media”. The court accepted the case against Hall under the Computer Crimes Act in January.

“Criminal defamation laws should be abolished, as criminal penalties are always disproportionate punishments for reputational harm and infringe on free expression,” HRW said. “Criminal defamation laws are open to easy abuse, resulting in very harsh consequences, including imprisonment. As repeal of criminal defamation laws in an increasing number of countries has shown, such laws are not necessary to protect reputations.”

The offending FinnWatch study said: “Cheap has a high price: responsibility problems relating to international private label products and food production in Thailand.”

It studied the food produced in Thailand and sold in Finland. Based on research and interviews conducted in 2012 with Prachaub Kiri Khan factory workers, the study said Natural Fruit had committed labour rights abuses, including substandard working conditions, the confiscation of staff documents, use of child labour, unlawful wages and excessive overtime. FinnWatch said Natural Fruit refused to cooperated with the report.

HRW found that migrant workers from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia frequently received little or no protection from the Thai authorities despite claims that all legally registered staff would be protected under the law. Migrants who complained about Thai bosses commonly faced retaliation, the New-York-based NGO said.

“Migrant workers in Thailand face huge challenges in asserting their rights in Thailand,” Adams added. “Prosecuting Andy Hall for his association with independent efforts to document rights abuses raises serious questions about Thailand’s readiness to protect workers’ rights.”