(New York) – A Bangkok court’s libel verdict against a prominent labor rights campaigner will have serious chilling effects on activists who investigate and report on abuses in Thailand’s agri-business, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 26, 2018, the Prakhanong Court ordered Andy Hall to pay 10 million Thai baht (US$312,500) in damages plus lawyer and court fees to Natural Fruit Co., Ltd.
The Thai government should publicly oppose the use of retaliatory defamation cases resulting in excessive awards.
“Massive libel damages for reporting on human rights violations will undermine desperately needed research on labor abuses in Thailand,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Thai government should recognize that the country’s reputation and economy are better served by ending the mistreatment of migrant workers and ensuring compliance with international labor standards than by embracing a legal system that hands down ridiculous damage awards.”
Natural Fruit originally filed a complaint under article 420 of the Civil and Commercial Code regarding an interview Hall gave to Al-Jazeera English in April 2013 alleging abuses of Burmese workers’ labor rights in the company’s pineapple processing factory. The interview was based on the 2013 report “Cheap Has a High Price,” which Hall researched in collaboration with Finnwatch, a Finnish nongovernmental organization.
The Prakhanong Court initially dismissed the case, citing lack of jurisdiction because Hall’s interview took place in Burma, outside of Thai territory. Natural Fruit appealed and in August 2017 the Appeals Court directed the Prakhanong Court to accept jurisdiction and proceed with the trial.
In September 2016, the Bangkok South Criminal Court had also found Hall guilty of criminal defamation and computer crimes in a case brought by Natural Fruit. He was sentenced to four years in prison (suspended for two years) and ordered to pay a 200,000 baht ($6,250) fine. The company appealed the verdict, seeking an immediate custodial sentence against Hall. The Appeals Court ruling in this case is scheduled for April 24.
The Thai government has failed to take adequate action to stop the mistreatment of migrant workers and support the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, Human Rights Watch said.
On May 31, 2017, Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha 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.”
Thailand is obligated to protect workers against human rights abuses by business enterprises. However, migrant workers in Thailand remain fearful of reporting abuses to authorities due to a lack of effective protection. In June 2017, 14 Burmese migrant workers were charged with criminal defamation after they filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand alleging that their employer, Thammakaset Co., Ltd., a chicken farm in Lopburi province, violated their rights.
“The Thai government should not look the other way while companies use the courts to undermine corporate accountability for labor rights abuses,” Adams said. “If the Thai government is really against labor exploitation, it should promote changes in the law that would prevent abusive libel cases.”