BANGKOK — During his years campaigning for the rights of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, Andy Hall cut a figure as an activist on overdrive.
Every twist in the British national’s efforts to expose abusive labor practices in Thai factories was milked for publicity. Inboxes of his contacts were peppered with e-mails about the plight of Burmese workers in shrimp factories and those trapped into near slavery on fishing boats.
Now, the 33 year old is turning to the same strategy to campaign for himself — seeking support from local and international labor and human rights groups and even some political muscle from foreign governments. It follows the two legal cases brought against him by Natural Fruit, a Thai company processing and exporting tinned pineapple and juice concentrate to Western markets.
The company, which has powerful political connections, is going after Hall for criminal defamation and a civil libel case. Hall faces the prospect of between two to seven years in jail for the first charge and 300 million baht (US $10 million) in demanded by Natural Fruit for the second.
Hall’s fate currently hangs on the Thai courts, which are still to determine if there is merit in the criminal case. The company, based in the pineapple-growing province of Prachuap Khiri Khan, along the Gulf of Thailand, filed a defamation complaint on Feb. 14 following a critical investigative report Hall co-authored about alleged labor rights violations at the company’s factory.
“The filing of private criminal and civil defamation charges against me is a malicious and unfounded act by Natural Fruit,” Hall asserted in an interview. “Defending oneself against these kind of malicious prosecutions is time consuming and expensive.”
In fact, with an eye to pre-empt a trial, Hall’s international campaign is trying to generate a wave of negative publicity that will compel his accusers to drop the chargers. And in doing so, he expects more, declaring that the “international campaign to have the company drop these charges can highlight the worrying extent of systematic abuse of migrants all across Thailand’s key export industries.”
Hall is not the only one conscious of the broader implications of his case. Those like Jackie Pollock, who have put in longer years campaigning for migrant workers, admit that the legal squeeze Natural Fruit is putting on Hall is unprecedented. “As far as I know, this is the first time that a criminal libel case has been charged against a researcher exposing the working conditions of migrant workers,” she revealed in an interview.
It comes at a time when migrant rights campaigners continue to work “under a barrage of threats and dangers, sometimes physical, from employers and brokers,” noted Pollock, founder of the Chiang Mai-based Migrant Assistance Programme (MAP). “The fear of defamation charges has always been there for all labor activists.”
Other troubling scenarios have been painted. Most notable is the chilling effect the very filing of the chargers against Hall would have — a situation that could only worsen if the courts find him guilty. The criminal defamation charges will “have a chilling effect on investigations of alleged rights abuses in Thailand,” Human Rights Watch stated in mid-April.
This case reflects an attempt to “stifle serious reporting on alleged abuses by one of Thailand’s top fruit processors,” Brad Adams, Asia director of the New York-based global rights campaigner, said at the time. “Freedom to investigate abuses by corporations is critical to ensure compliance and accountability under Thai law and human rights standards.”
In the report that Hall co-authored, Natural Foods has been exposed for allegedly employing close to 200 migrant workers from Myanmar who lack proper documentation, “including dozens of 14 to 17-year-old children,” at its factory in Prachuap Khiri Khan. The company has also confiscated the passports and work permits of the migrant workers, denying them the right to leave of switch jobs, added the report, “Cheap Has A High Price.”
The message of this report, published by Finnwatch, a Finish non-profit organization, was also directed at major Western importers of products made by the 800 workers at the Natural Foods factory, of which nearly 700 were migrants. Refresco, a leading European soft drink and fruit juice maker, uses the Thai company’s pineapple concentrate, states Henri Purje, research coordinator at Finnwatch. “This problem is not something to be tackled in Thailand alone.”
Yet the findings of this report were challenged by a spokesman of Natural Foods during its launch in Bangkok early this year. “I want to deny all allegations made by the Finnwatch report,” said retired police colonel Nakul Kollich at the press conference.
The defamation charges filed against Hall since then could not have come at a worse time for the Thai government. Bangkok is in the throes of trying to convince the United Sates government that it has launched measures to clean up abusive labor practices in the economies that depend on low-skilled workers from the poorer neighboring countries such as Burma, Laos and Cambodia.
Currently, there are an estimated three to four million migrant workers, both registered and unregistered, laboring in the garment, food processing, seafood, agriculture, construction, domestic and restaurant sectors. The fish and fish products sector, for instance, earns Thailand close to seven billion US dollars annually from exports to markets in America and Japan. And migrants perform all the “dirty and dangerous” work to keep this sector afloat.
Yet Thailand’s seafood sector has also attracted the attention of the US State Department. Abusive labor practices within its factory walls and boats have resulted in the country being ranked for the past three years on the Tier 2 Watch List of Washington’s annual “Trafficking in Person’s Report.”
And now, Thailand faces the embarrassing prospect of being downgraded to a Tier 3 category, which currently includes Washington’s adversaries such as North Korea and Iran. That setback to one of America’s oldest allies it the region could happen if US government researchers find that migrant workers are still abused by Thai employers.
Little wonder why the TiP report, used by American administrations as a diplomatic tool to combat modern day slavery, has not been lost on those following Hall’s case.
“While the dispute is a private one between a Thai company and an activist, the Thai government cannot ignore the matter,” said a Western diplomat on condition of anonymity. “The government will have to explain what it has done about the migrant worker abuses in the company that is taking Andy Hall to courts.”