Migrant workers indicted as Thai Prime Minister visits United States

Thai use of criminal defamation draws outcry in advance of state visit

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha met with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House yesterday, the same week 14 migrant workers in Thailand will be indicted on charges of criminal defamation and giving false information to public officials. The charges stem from a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT) in which the workers alleged egregious abuses by their employer, Thammakaset Company Limited, on a poultry farm that exported chicken overseas. The workers are scheduled to be indicted October 4, 2017, in Don Muang Magistrate's Court in Bangkok. Migrant rights activist Andy Hall also faces criminal defamation charges related to the case, and fled Thailand, citing prosecutorial harassment as the reason.

A demonstration in support of the workers is planned for 12:30 p.m. October 4, outside the Thai Embassy in Washington, D.C., 1024 Wisconsin Avenue, N.W.

The case has received international condemnation as a violation of Thailand’s international legal obligations and Thai business’ obligations to respect human rights under the U.N. Guiding Principles framework. The 14 migrant workers now face up to one and a half years’ imprisonment and/or fines of up to 30,000 Thai baht (US$900). Andy Hall is also facing potential imprisonment of up to 7 years and fines up to 300,000 Thai baht (US$9,000) for alleged criminal defamation and violations under the Computer Crimes Act.

“This case must be an urgent priority for the Prime Minister’s office, and for U.S.-Thai relations,” said Abby McGill, Campaigns Director at the International Labor Rights Forum. “Prosecutions against human rights defenders have risen dramatically, and the Thammakaset case is only one example of migrant workers and their advocates being punished for speaking out against abuse. As the United States and Thailand discuss trade between the two countries, it must be acknowledged that criminal defamation and similar laws increase risk of forced labor and other illegal working conditions in Thai-made goods.”

“Using draconian laws to go after investigators and workers seeking to document how companies in Thailand violate national labor laws and workers’ rights has a chilling impact on research into corporate supply chains,” said John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch. “If this continues, overseas companies sourcing their products in Thailand may need to re-think whether they want to invest in a country where both the government and local businesses see cracking down on NGOs and unions as acceptable, every day practice. Freedom of expression and association need to be protected if corporate Thailand aspires to success in the 21st century.”

Thammakaset Co. Ltd. alleged that the 14 migrant workers damaged the company’s reputation by filing a complaint on July 7, 2016 to the NHRCT, claiming that the Company paid less than minimum wage, failed to pay overtime wages, restricted workers freedom of movement and confiscated their identity documents, including passports, violating Thailand’s Labor Protection Act. On August 31, 2016, the NHRCT found that Thammakaset Co. Ltd. failed to pay minimum and overtime wages as well as provide adequate leave to workers, but rejected allegations of forced labor and restrictions on the freedom of movement. The Thai Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that Thammakaset Ltd. Co. had violated Thailand’s 1998 Labor Protection Act on the chicken farm where the 14 workers were employed on September 14, 2017, and ordered the company to pay the 14 workers 1.7 million Thai baht (US$51,000) in compensation. The Supreme Court is still considering litigation brought by the workers seeking 44 million baht (US$1.25m) in damages and compensation for abuses suffered.

"This is the latest in a string of cases that impose criminal penalties on workers for speaking out," said AFL-CIO International Director Cathy Feingold. "When workers cannot safely report abuse, let alone join together to negotiate with their employers, it's no surprise that worker exploitation is common. Thailand's repressive approach has created impunity for egregious violations of worker rights, including human trafficking and forced labor."

If Thailand wishes to be a responsible actor in monitoring supply chains and ensuring compliance with international labor standards it should act more decisively to protect the ability of all workers to exercise their fundamental rights and seek just redress for any violations or abuses without fear of retaliation or reprisals. An open letter to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha calls on the Thai government to: De-criminalize defamation by amending the Section 326-328 of the Thai Criminal Code, and the 2007 Computer Crimes Act; ensure the right to freedom of expression for workers who report on labor rights abuses allegedly committed by their employers; publicly discourage employer federations and national-level employer congresses from bringing criminal defamation and other unwarranted legal proceedings against migrant workers and human rights activists working to promote and protect human rights in the context of business operations; and amend Sections 88 and 101 of the 1975 Labor Relations Act to permit registered migrant workers to exercise the right to establish and serve in the leadership of a labor union. It further requests greater enforcement of Thai labor law and development of improved human rights policies and practices among Thai companies.