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Firm's 'bullying' response to labour claims sets dangerous precedent

Post a commentBy Marta Kasztelan , 30-Jun-2014
Last updated the 30-Jun-2014 at 08:31 GMT

This story is part of a new series of investigative reporting commissioned by FoodNavigator-Asia to follow the legalities and loopholes in Asia's produce growing and production network.

The lawsuit brought by a Thai pineapple exporter against a migrant rights advocate is a textbook example of a corporation trying to bully and intimidate its critics rather than scrutinise its own operations, according to supporters of the defendant. It also raises serious concerns about the independence of the Thai justice system.

The charges relate to an interview British campaigner Andy Hall had conducted with news network Al Jazeera, which took place in Myanmar and focused on on migrant conditions in Thailand—specifically human and labour rights abuses against workers at Natural Fruit Company, a Thai agri-business.

Thailand’s attorney general chose to prosecute Hall because he “should have foreseen” the damage his interview would have done to Natural Fruit in its home country.

Hall, who lives in Rangoon, Burma and has been campaigning for the improvement of working conditions for migrant workers in Thailand for over a decade, was formally detained following a meeting with officials at the prosecutor’s office.

He was released on bail two hours later after the Thai Frozen Foods Association and the Thai Tuna Industry Association posted THB50,000 (US$1,500) in bail on his behalf.

The Briton expressed his gratitude for the associations’ support, saying he was happy to see that some in the food processing industry were taking labour rights issues seriously.

As part of his bail conditions, local authorities confiscated Hall’s passport, leaving him stranded in Thailand until the criminal proceedings are concluded. And these, he says, could take years.

While maintaining that the “case should be dropped as it is unfounded”, Hall is now wondering about his chances receiving due process in Thailand.

I am concerned about having a fair trial. There were already concerns in the beginning about people trying to force me to sign a confession,” he said.

And there are also jurisdiction issues, as the attorney general is taking care of my case and I am not sure that he should be.”

Natural Fruit referred all questions regarding the lawsuit to its lawyer, Somsak Torugsa, who in turn declined to comment. In a statement made to Democratic Voice of Burma  in May, Somsak said the firm refuted all allegations and intended to proceed with the case as planned.

A litany of lawsuits

The latest complaint is probably the least of the activist's worries at the moment, as it carries less severe charges than three earlier and ongoing suits filed against him by Natural Fruit, which launched a litigation offensive aimed at silencing the Briton.

The company first sued Hall for criminal defamation and for violations of the controversial Computer Crimes Act in February 2013, after the release of a report  he co-authored for the Finnish rights group, Finnwatch.

According to the publication, a pineapple canning factory operated by Natural Fruit employed children as young as 14, confiscated migrant workers’ documents and severely underpaid them.

The factory management was also accused of abusing and discriminating against migrant workers, who made up most of the workforce, and who he said were often smuggled into the country from neighbouring Myanmar.

The most recent charge carries a maximum sentence of one year’s imprisonment and could see Hall paying a fine ofTHB20,000 (US$650).

If found guilty in the criminal cases filed against him earlier with the Bangkok South Criminal Court, Hall could face up to a further seven years in prison.

He may also be compelled to pay a THB$300m (US$10m) fine in the fourth Natural Fruit lawsuit, alleging civil defamation.

Freedom of speech v. corporate interests

Not surprisingly, the use of defamation laws by Natural Fruit in an effort to muzzle Andy Hall has been widely criticised by human rights watchdogs, adding even more weight to his statements about abuses at the company's factories. 

Speaking to FoodNavigator-Asia, Finnwatch’s Sonja Vartiala expressed her disappointment with the attorney general for taking on the criminal case.

We see that this legal case against Andy Hall is judicial harassment that's limiting freedom of speech. Andy is a human rights defender and should be protected, instead of taken to court,” she said.

Natural Fruit’s legal campaign against Hall also raised alarm bells with the UN back in April 2013, leading to five UN special rapporteurs sending an appeal  to the Thai government.

In it, they asserted that the criminal charges against the British activist may have had the “chilling effect” of silencing other human rights advocates, and that the government did not adequately address the underlying allegations of the violations of migrant workers‘ rights in question.

And if that wasn’t enough, only last week, the US raised concerns about the prosecution of Andy Hall in its annual Trafficking in Persons report  and alleged that “the use of criminal defamation laws to prosecute individuals for researching or reporting on human trafficking may have discouraged efforts to combat trafficking.“

The abysmal situation of migrant workers in Thailand, who are all too often trafficked and enslaved, has just earned the country a downgrade to “Tier 3”, the lowest position possible, on the US State Department human trafficking watch list.

Unfortunately, because of Natural Fruit’s determination to avoid public scrutiny and to continue “business as usual“, it seems the cheap produce exported by the company will continue to come at a very high price to its employees, if Hall’s claims are to be accepted. 

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