New York, New York (HRW) – Thai authorities should drop criminal defamation charges against 14 Burmese migrant workers who alleged that their employer violated their labor rights, Human Rights Watch said today. Proceedings in the case will begin in Don Muang Magistrates Court in Bangkok on June 7, 2017.
“The Thai government should not allow an employer to criminalize these migrant workers for reporting what they describe as horrendous and unlawful labor conditions,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The charges against these 14 workers should be dropped, and Thailand’s criminal defamation law should be abolished.”
The 14 workers submitted a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC) in July 2016, accusing Thammakaset Farm – a chicken farm in Lopburi province – of subjecting them to grueling work conditions that included up to 20 hours of work per day, forced overtime, and being compelled to sleep in chicken rearing areas overnight.
Human Rights Watch’s research has found that the human rights and labor rights of migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, and Laos working in Thailand have been regularly abused with impunity over the years. Migrant workers frequently receive little or no protection from Thai labor laws despite government assertions that all legally registered migrant workers will be protected under those laws. Migrant workers who raise complaints against Thai employers commonly face retaliation. Migrant workers are also prevented from organizing and legally establishing a labor union, or becoming an elected leader of a labor union, because of discriminatory provisions in the Labor Relations Act that only provide those rights to Thai nationals.
Thailand’s criminal defamation law provides employers with an easy way to retaliate against migrant and Thai workers alike who report alleged human rights abuses. These lawsuits accuse critics of making false statements with the intent of damaging the company’s reputation, Human Rights Watch said.
On May 31, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha emphasized the importance of companies respecting human rights in their operations and upholding the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Specifically, he said: “The government is determined to push business operations in Thailand to be fully in line with the three pillars of the UN Guiding Principles regarding protection [of human rights], respect [for human rights], and reparation [for damage from abuse] … The government has undertaken actions, including enforcing a labor protection legislation that ensures fair treatment of workers and protect them from abuse and mistreatment.”
However, the use of criminal defamation laws is inconsistent with these commitments. Human Rights Watch, along with an increasing number of governments and international agencies, believes that criminal defamation laws should be abolished because they are an inherently disproportionate response to the need to protect reputations. Civil defamation laws are perfectly adequate for that task. In addition, criminal defamation laws in Thailand and many other countries are easily abused as a way to retaliate against people who speak out against abuses.
“The government is helping to chill the atmosphere for investigations of company supply chains, and is undermining corporate accountability, if it does not protect these 14 migrant workers from retaliation,” Adams said.