British labor activist Andy Hall speaks to the media as he arrives at Bangkok South Criminal Court in September 2016. (Photo: AFP)
In a development lauded by rights activists, Thailand’s Supreme Court has upheld a lower court’s acquittal of a prominent British labor rights advocate who was convicted of defamation for speaking out on behalf of exploited migrant workers.
In 2013, a pineapple-growing company called Natural Fruit Co. Ltd. sued Andy Hall, a labor researcher from the United Kingdom, for criminal defamation over a report Hall co-authored for Finnwatch, a Finnish NGO focusing on corporate responsibility.
The report, available online, detailed the exploitation of migrant workers from Myanmar at the company, which forced them to work long hours for minimal pay and violated their rights in other ways.
Thailand’s agricultural sector “too often rests on the exploitation of a mainly non-Thai migrant workforce — mostly vulnerable workers from neighbouring Myanmar,” explains the report called “Cheap Has a High Price.”
“Forced labor, human trafficking, child labor, low wages and other serious violations continue to characterize the operations of some pineapple and tuna companies in Thailand despite growing national and international criticism of such practices,” it adds.
Natural Fruit sued over the report, denying the charges and claiming Hall and his fellow researchers had defamed it.
In September 2016, Hall, an outspoken activist, was sentenced to four years in prison and a fine of 150,000 baht (US$5,000) by the Bangkok South Criminal Court.
In May 2018, however, the Appeals Court overturned the verdict, ruling that the evidence presented by Finnwatch to the court had raised the possibility of labor violations at the company, which vindicated Hall.
The court further argued that the research of Finnwatch in exposing the exploitation of migrant workers served the public’s interest. The company appealed the court’s ruling to the Supreme Court.
In Thailand punitive libel laws are routinely employed by the rich and powerful to try and silence critics, rights advocates say. Lawsuits can take years to be resolved, with the accused facing the prospects of their lives and careers ruined in the meantime.
Natural Fruit has filed four criminal and civil cases against Hall since the publication of the report in 2013. On this coming July 14, Thailand’s Supreme Court is set to issue a final ruling on his appeal against another conviction in a civil defamation case from 2018.
In that case, also brought by Natural Fruit in 2013, Hall was fined 10 million baht ($323,000) over an interview he gave to the Al-Jazeera television channel in Myanmar.
Facing the prospect of prison time and financial ruin, Hall left Thailand in 2016, vowing not to return unless judicial harassment against him ceased. The activist, who is currently based in Kathmandu, Nepal, continues to work on cases involving the exploitation of migrant workers across Southeast Asia.
“I welcome today’s final ruling in this case. But after years of ongoing judicial harassment that has taken a heavy toll on me, my family and my colleagues, the verdict does not feel like a victory,” Hall said in a statement posted on his Facebook page.
“My activism for over a decade in Thailand was intended only to promote and uphold the fundamental rights of millions of migrant workers in the country.
“These workers continue to find themselves without a voice in high-risk situations of forced labor and subject to systemic human and labor rights violations in global supply chains.”