A rights group has voiced concern that a Bangkok court’s libel verdict against a prominent labour rights campaigner will have serious chilling effects on activists who investigate and report on abuses in Thailand’s agri-business.
On March 26, 2018, the Prakhanong Court ordered UK national Andy Hall to pay 10 million Thai baht (US$312,500) in damages plus lawyer and court fees to Natural Fruit Co., Ltd.
The verdict was made after Mr Hall gave an interview to Al-Jazeera English in April 2013 discussing Myanmar migrant workers’ conditions at 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.
“Massive libel damages for reporting on human rights violations will undermine desperately needed research on labour 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 labour standards than by embracing a legal system that hands down ridiculous damage awards.”
The Prakhanong Court initially dismissed the case, citing lack of jurisdiction because Mr Hall’s interview took place in Myanmar, 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 Mr Hall. The Appeals Court ruling in this case is scheduled for April 24.
HRW has expressed its concern that not enough is being done to stop the alleged mistreatment of migrant workers in Thailand. The country has reportedly been making some progress in improving the situation for migrants, including a drive to register those working illegally.
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, according to HRW. In June 2017, 14 Myanmar migrant workers were charged with criminal defamation after they filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand alleging that their employer, a chicken farm in Lopburi province, violated their rights.