A worker tends to chickens at a farm in Thailand. 

© 2007 Sukree Sukplang / Reuters

(New York) – The Thai government should publicly oppose in court the criminal defamation charges against 14 Burmese migrant workers for filing a complaint against their employer with Thailand’s human rights commission, Human Rights Watch said. The trial is to begin on February 7, 2018, in Don Muang Magistrates Court in Bangkok. If convicted, the workers face up to a year in prison.

“The criminal defamation case against 14 migrant workers for reporting abusive labor conditions threatens all rights enforcement bodies in Thailand,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The government should publicly oppose the employer’s charges and protect the ability of government agencies to act on complaints of wrongdoing.”

Public prosecutors and representatives of the Ministry of Labor should both play an important role in raising concerns with the court about protecting persons from retaliation for filing complaints to government agencies.

In July 2016, the 14 workers submitted their complaint to the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, accusing Thammakaset Co. Ltd. – a chicken farm in Lopburi province – of subjecting them to grueling work conditions. They said the company required them to work up to 20 hours a day without a day off over 40 or more days, forced them to work overtime, paid them below the minimum wage, restricted their freedom of movement, and confiscated their identity documents.

In August 2016, Labor Ministry officials ordered Thammakaset to pay the 14 workers compensation of 1.7 million Baht (US$48,600). However, the workers have yet to receive any compensation as the company has appealed the order in the courts.

Thammakaset filed a criminal defamation complaint in October 2016 against the 14 workers, together with a labor activist from the Migrant Worker Rights Network. Thammakaset contends the workers’ complaints to the human rights commission damaged the company’s reputation.

“The Ministry of Labor determined the company violated the law and ordered it to pay the workers,” Adams said. “Shockingly, the company not only refused to pay but is now trying to level criminal charges against their workers for highlighting their plight.”

On May 31, 2017, Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha emphasized the importance of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. He said: “The government is determined to push business operations in Thailand to be fully in line with the three pillars of the UN Guiding Principles regarding protection [of human rights], respect [for human rights], and reparation [for damage from abuse] … The government has undertaken actions, including enforcing a labor protection legislation that ensures fair treatment of workers and protects them from abuse and mistreatment.”

However, Thailand’s criminal defamation law allows employers to retaliate against workers who report alleged labor rights abuses. Article 137 of the Criminal Code makes it a criminal offense to give “false information to any official” where it “is likely to cause injury to any person or the public,” and carries a penalty of up to six months in prison and a fine of up to 10,000 Baht (US$300). Article 326 makes it a criminal offense to “impute anything” to another person “before a third person in any manner likely to impair [their] reputation … or to expose such other person to hatred or scorn,” and carries a penalty of up to one year in prison and a fine of up to 20,000 Baht ($600).

Human Rights Watch, along with an increasing number of governments and international agencies, believes that criminal defamation laws should be abolished because they are an inherently disproportionate response to the need to protect reputations. Civil defamation laws are perfectly adequate for that task.

“The government should not sit still while Thammakaset uses the courts to undermine corporate accountability for labor rights abuses,” Adams said. “Thailand’s national human rights commission should also step up and protect the integrity of its complaint process by speaking out against abusive criminal defamation cases.”