A UK lawyer pleaded ‘not guilty’ Monday to defamation charges which could see him spend seven years in jail for exposing alleged labour abuses in Thailand’s tinned fruit factories.
Andy Hall will now face a 12-day trial in May on a total of four counts of civil and criminal defamation under laws so broad that MEPs and union leaders have condemned them as a form of harassment.
Hall originally conducted interviews in 2012 for a Finnish NGO exploring labour rights abuses in Thailand’s key fruit tinning industry. The report, published in 2013, was called “Cheap Has A High Price.”
Natural Fruit, the owner of the factory, then filed charges against Hall personally, resulting in his passport being confiscated during bail by the Thai courts.
Hall said, “I respect but strongly disagree with the court’s decision.”
He added that Thai laws were being used to “seriously curtail… freedom of expression and the ability to assist migrant victims of abuse, trafficking and exploitation”.
Representatives from the UK and Finnish embassies were in court to monitor proceedings, according to Hall.
Child labour, forced labour, low wages, long hours…
The Finnwatch report centred on working conditions at a Natural Fruit factory in southern Thailand, levelling accusations of forced and child labour, unlawfully low wages and long hours.
It focussed scrutiny of Thailand’s food industry which has faced years of allegations of mistreatment of its mainly migrant labour force – as has, separately, Thailand’s lucrative fishing industry.
Hall, a London law graduate, has lived in Thailand for some 11 years and speaks Thai. He pointed out to the court that he was neither the author of the final report, nor did he publish it.
His case has been backed by the UK Trades Union Congress, as well as MEPs such as Glenis Willmott.
Both Thailand’s criminal defamation and computer misuse laws have long been criticised by rights groups for their broad wording and the ease with which they can be used to stifle investigative work and muzzle the press.
Last year Thailand was also kept on the bottom rung of the United States’s annual ranking for countries accused of turning a blind eye to human trafficking, alongside nations like Libya, North Korea and Eritrea.
Natural Fruit, a major supplier to the European drinks market, has denied the allegations in Hall’s report and has also launched a civil case seeking some seven million euros in damages.
British MEP, Glenis Willmott, who has raised Hall’s case in the European Parliament, and followed it closely, last week told EURACTIV that Hall’s bail conditions as “completely unacceptable.”
Willmott said, “I have raised Andy’s case straight to the most senior foreign representative in the EU.
“The harassment that Andy has been subjected to by the Thai authorities is completely unacceptable.
“We highlighted Andy’s plight again in an urgent debate in the European Parliament and called on the Thai authorities to end this harassment immediately. Human rights are top of the EU agenda and we will continue to call for decent working rights for all workers across the globe.”
The fruit processing industry is not the only export sector of Thailand under scrutiny – conditions aboard its fishing vessels have been highlighted in numerous exposes of poor labour practices.
The EU is mulling a total ban on Thai fish imports, due to its repeated flouting of regulations on “Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported” (IUU) fishing. A decision on whether to upgrade the current ‘yellow card’ to a ‘red card’ – which would force the ban on the world’s third-largest fish exporter – is expected soon.
Since the military coup in May 2014, which saw General Prayuth Chan-ocha seize power, the EU has indefinitely suspended negotiations on a planned Free Trade Agreement with Thailand, while the country has come under sustained criticism from Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists for its clampdown on media freedoms.
In December, even the US Ambassador was reported to the police for allegedly breaking the country’s expansive ‘lese-majeste’ laws which outlaw any criticism of the Thai monarchy.