(New York) – A Thai court’s conviction of the British researcher Andy Hall for his work on labor abuses will have a serious chilling effect on workers’ rights monitoring in Thailand, Human Rights Watch said today. On September 20, 2016, the Bangkok South Criminal Court found Hall guilty of criminal defamation and violating the Computer Crime Act and sentenced him to four years in prison, which the judge suspended because Hall’s work was beneficial to Thai society. Hall was also ordered to pay a 150,000 baht (US$4,300) fine and to publish the verdict in print and online media.
The prosecution of Hall, whose work focused on the mistreatment of migrant workers, demonstrates the hollowness of Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha’s support for the United Nations General Assembly’s New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants.
“Andy Hall’s conviction and sentence is a major blow to desperately needed research and reporting on labor rights violations in Thailand,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Instead of punishing the messenger, the government should fully investigate abuses against migrant workers and press companies to respect labor rights.”
Hall researched alleged serious labor rights abuses, including poor working conditions, low wages, and child labor at the Natural Fruit Company, Ltd.’s factory in Prachuap Khiri Khan province. In February 2013, the company sued Hall in response to an investigative report by the nongovernmental organization Finnwatch, which Hall had co-authored. The report, “Cheap has a high price: Responsibility problems relating to international private label products and food production in Thailand,” investigates the production practices of private label juices and fruit sold in Finland – including by the Natural Fruit Company.
In recent years, Thai government officials and companies have frequently retaliated against individuals who report allegations of human rights violations. Common tactics include filing criminal defamation charges and seeking prosecution for computer crimes.
Human Rights Watch, along with an increasing number of governments and international bodies, believes that criminal defamation laws should be abolished because criminal penalties are always disproportionate punishments for reputational harm, and infringe on the right to free expression. Criminal defamation laws are easily abused, resulting in very harsh consequences for the accused, including imprisonment. An increasing number of countries have repealed criminal defamation laws, showing that such laws are not necessary to protect reputations.
Human Rights Watch’s own research has found the human rights and labor rights of migrant workers in Thailand from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos have been regularly violated with impunity over the years. Migrant workers frequently receive little or no protection from Thai labor laws despite government assertions that all legally registered migrant workers will be protected under those laws. Migrant workers who raise complaints against Thai employers commonly face retaliation.
“The Thai government should recognize that freedom to investigate corporate abuses is critical for ensuring compliance and accountability under Thai laws and international human rights standards,” Adams said. “At the same time, international companies sourcing from Thailand should press Thai authorities and exporters to stop using criminal charges to silence critics and obstruct investigation of human rights violations.”