Report by Nid Satjipanon in Bangkok.
On 2 June 2016 human rights activist and lawyer Andy Hall took to the witness box in a dimly lit criminal court in Bangkok. The court interpreter administered the oath, asking Mr Hall to swear to the Lord Buddha that his evidence will be the truth and to accept the greatest calamities and divine judgement for any lies he would tell. Mr Hall’s lawyer then commenced the examination-in-chief of the Mr Hall in his defence against a private prosecution brought on by Natural Fruit Company Ltd.
Hailing from Lincolnshire, England, Andy Hall has been living in Thailand for the past 11 years working closely with migrant workers in Thailand and Myanmar on labour and migration issues. In 2012 Mr Hall led a team in conducting field research into three Thai companies that export their products to foreign markets. The first two were tuna companies, Thai Union Manufacturing and Unicord, and the third was a pineapple concentrate processing company, Natural Fruit. The research resulted in the publication of a 2013 Finnwatch report titled “Cheap Has a High Price”. It relayed Mr Hall’s research, stating that these companies’ factories exploited vulnerable migrant workers from Myanmar. This included the use of child labour, forced/bonded labour, unlawful wage arrangements, and human trafficking. The tuna companies engaged in dialogue with Finnwatch and other third parties to resolve the issues raised. Natural Fruit on the other hand did not respond, but instead laid civil and criminal defamation proceedings against Mr Hall for his involvement in the report and a further interview he did with Al-Jazeera whilst in Myanmar.
The criminal defamation charges regarding the Al-Jazeera interview has already been dismissed, with the Thai Court of Appeal unanimously ruling that the police and the Office of the Attorney General had no jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute the matter. What is currently under way is the prosecution over the Finnwatch report, which commenced on 19 May 2016 in Bangkok South Criminal Court, with the civil suits to follow pending the outcome of this prosecution. Although he was not surprised with his findings in the field, Mr Hall did not expect this legal response from Natural Fruit. “I’ve never had any problems like this before. It was very unpredicted. Most of the industries support our work. We work with Thai unions, we work with many companies without problems.” When asked what the usual response was by other companies who are presented with similar reports on their supply chains, Mr Hall said that “They continue on by fixing and addressing the issues raised. In reality to export to the European markets they need to respect human rights and corporate social responsibility.”
Despite the laying of these charges and the fact that he was arrested and detained by the police, Mr Hall has found the judicial process has been fair to him. He was granted bail within hours after his arrest and is now being represented by a team of three defence lawyers against three prosecutors in a trial before a Judge alone. Since one of the defences against a claim of defamation is that the statements were made in good faith and reasonable belief that they were true, Mr Hall had to detail how he conducted his research and what they were based on to the presiding Judge. Mr Hall gave a clear account of the individuals working for Natural Fruit he interviewed with his team. He recounted his interviews of workers falling victim to scams by human traffickers, having their passports confiscated upon arrival at the factory, using child labour, illegally low wages, and dangerous work conditions with workers resulting in workers’ deaths and loss of limbs.
Mr Hall ended his testimony by stating that at no point did he and Finnwatch encourage consumers to stop buying products supplied by Natural Fruit. His aim has always been to encourage communications between stakeholders so that the receiving companies are aware of their supply chains, maintain high standards of corporate social responsibility, and improve working conditions and respect for human rights. This too is a key response to the allegations of criminal defamation from Natural Fruit, who must prove intention.
Somewhat ironically, the legal proceedings commenced by Natural Fruit has resulted in greater interest from civil society, human rights organisations, and consumers around the world. Mr Hall was not surprised by the labour issues he uncovered, stating that the findings were “expected, normal, it wasn’t a big issue until they prosecuted me. Nobody cared.” While Mr Hall will continue his advocacy in this region in future projects, he understands why there are few people willing to walk down the same path as him. “It’s normal in Thailand that if you do this kind of research they’ll just kill you. I’m lucky because I have white skin. If you’re Thai or Myanmar they will just kill you. That’s why people don’t often do the research here.”
Andy Hall’s trial will resume on 9 June 2016 with the prosecutors cross-examining Mr Hall, followed by further witnesses for the defence case. Mr Hall is supported each day at Court by members of Migrant Workers Rights Network, Human Rights Development Foundation, and other personal supporters. He expects to file counter-suits against Natural Fruit if the Judge finds him not guilty. In the event that he is found guilty however, the charges he faces carry a combined maximum sentence of seven years’ imprisonment.
Nid Satjipanon is a public defence criminal lawyer in Auckland who has a number of years of experience in human rights advocacy. Nid is currently in Bangkok covering this case. This is his first article for EveningReport.nz