(Bangkok) – Thai authorities should drop charges against a prominent migrant worker rights activist, Human Rights Watch said today. The charges violate the free expression rights of the activist, Andy Hall, and undermine his research into labor rights abuses by companies in Thailand.

Following a final preliminary hearing on July 20, 2015, a Bangkok criminal court will decide whether to indict Hall, an adviser to the Migrant Worker Rights Network, on charges of criminal defamation and violations of the Computer Crime Act brought by the Natural Fruit Company and government prosecutors.

British rights activist Andy Hall arrives at the Phra Khanong Provincial Court in Bangkok, Thailand on October 29, 2014. 

© 2014 Reuters

“This prosecution is all about gagging Andy Hall to deter serious reporting about alleged abuses against migrant workers, and about intimidating others who might look closely at Thailand’s corporate supply chains,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The government should recognize that freedom to investigate corporate abuses is critical to ensuring compliance and accountability under Thai law and international human rights standards.”

The Natural Fruit Company Limited sued Hall in February 2013 in response to an investigative report by the organization FinnWatch, which included information about alleged labor rights violations at the company’s factory in Prachaub Kirikhan province. If convicted, Hall faces up to seven years in prison. Natural Fruit also has filed two civil defamation lawsuits against Hall seeking damages of over 300 million baht (US$8.7 million).

The Natural Fruit Company Limited, whose workforce in the Prachuab Kirikhan factory consists mostly of migrant workers from Burma, asserted that Hall defamed and damaged the company by “broadcasting false statements to public media.” Government prosecutors joined the case, in which Hall was also charged under the Computer Crimes Act.

The FinnWatch report, which Hall wrote, “Cheap has a high price: Responsibility problems relating to international private label products and food production in Thailand,” investigated the production of food sourced from Thailand and sold in Finland. Based on field research and interviews collected in November 2012 from employees of the company’s Prachaub Kirikhan factory, the report alleged that Natural Fruit Company Limited had committed serious labor rights abuses, including poor working conditions, unlawfully low wages, confiscation of workers’ official documents, use of child labor, and excessive overtime. FinnWatch stated that it had contacted representatives of the Natural Fruit Company Limited repeatedly during the course of the research to discuss preliminary findings, but that the company did not respond to these requests.

Human Rights Watch believes that criminal defamation laws should be abolished, as criminal penalties are always disproportionate punishments for reputational harm and infringe on free expression. 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 human rights and labor rights of migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos living and working in Thailand have been regularly violated with impunity over the years. Human Rights Watch’s research shows that migrant workers often receive little or no protection from Thai labor laws despite Thai government assertions that all legally registered migrant workers are covered by those laws. The research also shows that migrant workers who raise complaints against Thai employers frequently face retaliation.

Government requirements that migrant workers remain with employers with whom they register except in exceptional cases facilitates impunity for abusive employers. Weaknesses in Thailand’s labor protection system and lack of accountability by government officials who aid and abet exploitation of migrant workers means they remain extremely vulnerable to labor exploitation, physical and sexual violence, and trafficking.

“Seeing Andy Hall hauled before the courts for investigating labor rights abuses should concern any international firm sourcing products from Thailand,” Adams said. “Companies buying Thai exports should call on Bangkok to act to ensure respect for workers’ rights and accountability from its export industries, including by ending criminal offenses for activists researching supply chains.”