Fourteen migrant workers face prison for speaking out

(Bangkok, July 12, 2017)—Thai authorities and Thammakaset Company Limited should immediately drop criminal defamation complaints against 14 migrant workers from Myanmar who alleged serious labor rights violations, Fortify Rights said today. The Don Muang Magistrates Court in Bangkok will hold a preliminary hearing tomorrow, July 13, to determine whether the complaint has sufficient merit to proceed to a full criminal trial.

“These workers should not face prison for alleging labor rights violations,” said Amy Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “Thailand should immediately abolish its criminal defamation law. Thai authorities and businesses have obligations to respect and protect human rights, including the right to freedom of expression.”

On July 7, 2016, 14 workers submitted a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand alleging that Thammakaset Co. Ltd., a Thai-owned poultry farm in Lopburi Province, paid workers less than minimum wage, failed to pay overtime wages, and confiscated their identity documents, including passports, violating Thailand’s Labor Protection Act. On October 6, 2016, Thammakaset Co. Ltd. filed a criminal defamation complaint against the 14 workers, alleging that their complaint to the National Human Rights Commission damaged the company’s reputation. The 14 workers—9 men and 5 women—are all from Bago Region, Myanmar.

The 14 migrant workers are facing charges under sections 137 and 326 of the Thailand Criminal Code. Section 137 makes it a criminal offence to give “false information to any official” where it “is likely to cause injury to any person or the public.” The crime carries a sentence of up to six months’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to 10,000 Thai Baht (US$293). Section 326 similarly makes it a criminal offense to “impute anything” to another person “before a third person in any manner likely to impair [their] reputation … or to expose such other person to hatred or scorn” and carries a sentence of up to one-year imprisonment and/or a fine of up to 20,000 Thai Baht (US$588).

“Rather than resolving issues, companies that rely on criminal defamation charges to address allegations create larger human rights concerns,” said Amy Smith. “Where verified allegations of misconduct have been made, companies should respond by providing remedies and reforming their practices, not prosecuting their accusers.”

On November 4, 2016, Thammakaset Co. Ltd. also filed a complaint against Andy Hall, a British human rights defender, alleging he committed criminal defamation and violated the Computer-Related Crimes Act 2007 (CCA) in connection with his use of social media calling for justice and adequate compensation for the 14 migrant workers. The Bangkok South Criminal Court is scheduled to consider the merits of the complaint on July 18, 2017.

In June 2016, the same 14 workers filed a complaint with the Department of Labor Protection and Welfare (DLPW) in Lopburi Province about employment conditions at the Thammakaset Co. Ltd. farm where they worked. On August 1, 2016, the DLPW found that the company violated Thailand’s Labor Protection Act by failing to pay workers the minimum wage, adequately compensate workers for overtime, and provide adequate leave. The DLPW ordered Thammakaset Co. Ltd. to pay a total of 1,700,000 Thai Baht (US$50,013) to the 14 workers.

Thammakaset Co. Ltd. appealed the decision of the DLPW in August 2016. On December 19, 2016, the Region 1 Labor Court in Saraburi Province upheld the decision of DLPW. In January 2017, the company appealed the verdict of the Region 1 Labor Court. The case is now pending before the Supreme Court.

Thailand’s Labor Protection Act articulates a comprehensive set of rights and standards for workers, guaranteeing workers the right to minimum wage, a limit to the number of working hours, and a set of minimum standards to ensure workplace health and safety. Thailand’s labor laws apply equally to migrant workers. The bilateral Memorandum of Understanding between Thailand and Myanmar governing the formal recruitment and management of Myanmar migrant workers also explicitly requires the protection of Myanmar migrant workers under Thailand’s domestic laws. 

Thailand is also a party to several international instruments, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and core International Labor Organization Conventions, which provide for the protection of workers and migrants.

“Migrant workers have a right to be protected in the workplace and should be able to speak out when these rights are not protected,” said Amy Smith. “Defamation should never be criminalized. Thailand should immediately amend its laws to be in line with international standards on the right to freedom of expression.”

The right to freedom of expression is also protected under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Thailand is a state party. Under international law, restrictions on freedom of expression are permissible only when they are provided by law, proportional, and necessary to accomplish a legitimate aim.

The Government of Thailand should immediately abolish its criminal defamation law to bring Thai law in line with international laws and standards, Fortify Rights said. Criminal penalties for defamation, including imprisonment, constitute a disproportionate punishment that infringes on the right to freedom of expression.

On May 31, 2017, Thai authorities and business entities committed to implementing the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The Guiding Principles—adopted by the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2011—are 31 foundational and operational principles clarifying the duties and responsibilities of states and enterprises to respect and protect human rights and remedy human rights violations and abuses in the context of business activities. Among other obligations, the Guiding Principles provide that states should “protect against human rights abuse within their territory and/or jurisdiction by third parties, including business enterprises” and ensure “the legitimate and peaceful activities of human rights defenders are not obstructed.”

“It’s time for Thai authorities and businesses in Thailand to walk the talk and protect human rights in Thailand,” said Amy Smith. “Dropping the criminal complaints against these workers and Andy Hall would be a step in the right direction.”

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