International rights groups back labor activist ahead of Thailand trial

Members of the international human rights community have affirmed their support for labor activist Andy Hall, who will face trial in Thailand next month. Nearly 100 organizations submitted a joint letter to the Thai Pineapple Industry Association (TPIA) last week, insisting that criminal and civil suits brought against Hall by the Natural Fruit company be dropped. The signing groups called for harsh punishment of Natural Fruit, saying the TPIA should remove Natural Fruit CEO Wirat Piyapornpaiboon from the TPIA presidency and should revoke Natural Fruit’s membership if it does not drop the charges.

The letter signals mounting international concern about Hall’s case. Hall, a longtime labor rights activist, faces several suits related to research he conducted on worker conditions at several factories in Thailand. Hall was one of several people working on a report on cheap labor for Finnwatch, a Finnish NGO. Because he announced the findings publicly in Bangkok, Natural Fruit, one of the companies criticized in Finnwatch’s report Cheap has a high price, claimed Hall defamed the company. Hall will face Natural Fruit in court Sept. 2-10 on criminal defamation charges for an interview he gave about the report to Al Jazeera while he was in Burma. A second trial addressing the charges brought against him under the Computer Crimes Act will begin Sept. 15.

Activists around the world see Hall’s case as deeply troubling and believe it will set a precedent for Thailand and the region, whichever way it goes.

“The show of solidarity is very telling of how important it is on an international level,” said Bobbie Sta. Maria, a Southeast Asia researcher and representative for the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. “Some very important rights are at stake in this case.”

Hall’s case indicates deeper issues in the reporting system, Sta. Maria said. The fact that companies can bring their considerable resources to bear when silencing activists is troubling, certainly. But most people don’t realize how difficult the reporting process is. Just getting information on what is happening inside the factory can be risky.

“I think consumers need to know about the conditions of the workers making the products they need to buy and I think they need to be aware that it can be made impossible to get that information,” Sta. Maria said.

Sonja Vartiala, executive director at Finnwatch, said the organization wants to see international governments take serious action against companies that abuse workers rights. The problem goes beyond consumer education, she said.

“We want to have a law that says European companies have to do the due diligence process before they buy things from risk countries,” Vartiala said. “We don’t think this is just for consumers to decide.”

If convicted, Hall could face seven years in prison and $10m in damages. The activist told Asian Correspondent earlier this summer that no matter what happens, he is committed to working on workers’ rights in Thailand. But a conviction could have a dramatic impact on the work Hall and many others are doing.

“It sets a very bad precedent. I would say even now, it’s already starting to create a chilling effect for other human rights defenders, especially in Thailand,” Sta. Maria said. “The kind of work they do is very important to exposing human rights violations. [The case] affects the amount of information that comes out about the situation of migrant workers … If this kind of oppression succeeds, people will think twice about doing this kind of work and being public about it.”

Migrant workers “are already being intimidated to be subservient to their employers,” said Abby McGill, campaigns director at International Labor Rights Forum. “Anything you do to further that isolation or that fear in those communities is wrong.”

Vartiala said the precedent being set with the case should concern companies that try to be aware of factory conditions where their goods are produced.

“There is no respect for NGOs and researchers who are trying to change problems in the supply chain,” she said. “It’s worrying for retailers who are doing audits all the time. It’s worrying for both the industry and civil society.”

Despite the grim reality of the risk he faces, Hall remains optimistic about the trial and committed to his work.

“I’m feeling very confident that we have a good case,” he said. “I have a good team of lawyers that will defend the principles at stake.” He and his legal team have been working on his testimony and preparing witnesses ahead of the trials.

“We will be proving both that the research was true and it was done properly,” he said. “It was proper research and it’s fair and we will also be making a very strong case that I had no intention to defame the company and that what I did was in the public interest.”

Many see this as an important moment for Thailand to take a firm stand on the side of human rights, especially after the country was downgraded to Tier 3 on the U.S.’ most recent Trafficking in Persons (TiP) report.

Hall himself said his case and the outpouring of attention and support will go a long way in “raising the profile of these cases across the globe, not just in Thailand.”

“This is an issue for all industries in Thailand to show the international community that they’re really serious about standing up for works rights,” he said.

“This is a situation that can be solved,” McGill said. “If migrant workers had more rights, if they had more options for reporting when they’re being abused, we wouldn’t see the intense kinds of systematic abuse were seeing in Thailand.”