The Irrawaddy

Thai Court Orders Migrant Labor Advocate to Pay Natural Fruit Company $320,000

Andy Hall and supporters outside the Thai Supreme Court.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — A court in Bangkok on Monday ordered British migrant rights defender Andy Hall to pay 10 million baht (US$320,000) in damages to Natural Fruit Co. Ltd., which sued him for defamation over comments he made to news network Al Jazeera regarding the 2013 report Cheap Has a High Price.

The court also ordered Hall to pay an additional 10,000 baht to cover the cost of the plaintiff’s legal and court fees, including interest of 7.5 percent from the date of filing the case until the amount is fully paid, according to a statement released by Finnwatch, a Finnish civil society organization focusing on corporate responsibility, on Monday.

Finnwatch hired Hall to do field research on workers in the pineapple industry and used his findings in the report published in January 2013. The report revealed that Myanmar migrant workers were being subjected to slave labor conditions at Natural Fruit’s pineapple processing plant in Prachuap Khiri Khan province. Later the Thai company brought four separate lawsuits, both criminal and civil, against the researcher, seeking damages for defamation among other things.

The company filed a 100 million baht civil damages claim against the British researcher in 2014, related to an interview with Al Jazeera in April 2013, which he gave in Myanmar.

Bangkok’s Prakanong Court initially dismissed the case, but the company appealed and the Appeals Court in August 2017 ordered the lower court to accept the case and hear it in full. Witness testimony in the reopened cases concluded last month.

Sonja Vartiala, the executive director of Finnwatch, told The Irrawaddy on Monday, “Andy Hall will be appealing the decision. We have been informed that now following this decision he will need to pay the court fee for the plaintiff. Finnwatch will continue to support Andy in the legal cases.”

“Today’s court ruling is one huge leap backward and it will have a chilling effect on anyone acting as a whistleblower,” she said. “It is very harmful for Thailand and will surely also raise serious concerns among buyers in Europe.”

Myanmar migrant rights advocates condemned the Thai Court’s verdict. “The aim of the research is to highlight the situation facing poor migrant workers, who are not paid properly and live in misery. We are sorry to hear the news of this verdict,” said U Aung Kyaw, a spokesman for the Migrant Workers Right Network (MWRN) based in Mahachai near Bangkok.

MWRN helped Hall with his research and acted as a defense witness at his court hearings. Hall has worked closely with MWRN as an international adviser.

He said Hall was a “dedicated researcher” who had devoted a lot of time to learning about the situation facing migrants from Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos.

The migrant labor rights advocate added that Myanmar migrants continued to be preyed upon, even by the Thai judicial system, citing the example of two Myanmar migrants widely believed to have been framed in a murder case in the country’s Koh Tao resort island, for which they are now facing the death penalty.

“When it comes to migrant workers … they are far less important than the economy,” said U Aung Kyaw, adding that the migrant labor rights movement has continued its efforts to improve the situation for migrant workers in Thailand, even though Hall had been forced to stop his work.

The Finnwatch director said there had been “some improvements in migrants workers’ rights in Thailand,” citing a Royal Ordinance titled the Management of Employment of Migrant Workers, issued last year, which includes some important provisions relating to recruitment practices such as zero fees for migrant workers.

“However there is a lack of tripartite dialogue in its implementation and migrant workers are still not allowed to unionize,” added the director.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights will undertake its first official 10-day visit to Thailand, from March 26 to April 4, to examine efforts to prevent, mitigate and remedy adverse human rights impacts of business operations.

“The working group has been informed about today’s court decision and will hopefully take this up in their meetings with the authorities in Thailand. Thai courts are used to silencing human rights defenders and this needs to stop,” added Vartiala.

Verdicts have been handed down in three of the four cases against Hall, but appeals and counter litigation are ongoing.

A criminal defamation case related to the Al Jazeera interview was dismissed in November 2016. Hall filed countersuits against Thailand’s Office of the Attorney General, nine Thai state prosecution officials and one senior police officer at the Central Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct cases in the Dusit District of Bangkok, while litigation against the Natural Fruit Company Ltd., two executives and its lawyers were filed at Prakanong Court on May 31 last year. The trial of the two executives started on March 22 and is scheduled to end on March 28, but the litigation against the state officials was dismissed. Hall’s legal team has appealed the dismissals.

The Appeal Court’s ruling on the Criminal Defamation and Computer Crimes cases is scheduled for April 24. A Civil Defamation and Damages Case over the Finnwatch report has been postponed until final verdicts in the criminal defamation and computer crimes cases are reached by Nakhon Pathom Court.