In an important verdict for the protection of labor rights and freedom of expression in Thailand, a magistrates court in Bangkok on Wednesday acquitted 14 Burmese migrant workers of criminal defamation charges for filing a complaint against their employer with the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT).
The court found the workers had filed their complaint in good faith in order to protect their rights, as guaranteed by the Thai constitution and international conventions.
In their complaint to the NHRCT in July 2016, the workers alleged that the Thammakaset chicken farm in Lopburi province had subjected them to grueling work conditions, including forced labor. Three months later Thammakaset responded with a criminal defamation complaint against the workers as well as a labor rights activist from the Migrant Worker Rights Network, contending that the complaints had damaged the company’s reputation.
Disappointingly, the NHRCT took no action to support the right of the workers to bring grievances against the company.
Human Rights Watch, along with a growing number of states and international bodies, seeks the abolition of criminal defamation laws because individuals should not face imprisonment for the purpose of protecting reputations.
In May, six United Nations human rights experts called on Thailand – where defamation laws have frequently been used to retaliate against whistleblowers who report labor abuses – to revise its laws and prosecution processes to prevent the “misuse of defamation legislation by companies.” But the Thai government has yet to do so.
This verdict should serve as a wake-up call for the Thai government to take concrete measures to ensure fair treatment of workers in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. It should also serve notice to the NHRCT to end their weak performance and step up to protect the integrity of its complaint process by speaking out against abusive criminal defamation cases.
Thailand should be investigating and ending labor rights abuses, instead of ignoring retaliation against victims, whistleblowers, and human rights defenders.