A British activist is to go on trial in Thailand tomorrow for defamation, facing a possible jail term after his investigation into alleged labor abuses in the kingdom’s food industry.
Andy Hall faces civil and criminal lawsuits submitted by Thai fruit processor Natural Fruit, a major supplier to the European drink market, in response to accusations of forced and child labor, unlawfully low wages and long hours.
Hall, who made the allegations in a report last year for Finnish rights watchdog Finnwatch, is due in court in Bangkok on a defamation charge linked to an interview he gave to the al Jazeera television network about the case.
If convicted in this first trial, he could face one year in prison. More serious charges under the computer crime act — which carries up to seven years in jail for each count — are due to be heard later in the month.
Hall denounced the charges as “judicial harassment,” saying he wanted his case to raise awareness of the “widespread and systematic” exploitation of migrants in Thailand.
“This abuse extends to many export markets well beyond fishing, seafood and pineapples to poultry, fruit and veg, rubber and even more now retail, food and beverage and tourism,” he said in e-mailed comments to reporters.
Migrant workers, particularly from Myanmar and Cambodia, help keep major Thai industries from seafood to construction afloat, but they often lack official work permits and are paid below the minimum wage.
Thailand’s junta rulers triggered an exodus of Cambodian workers following the May coup with a threat to arrest and deport illegal workers, although thousands have since returned.
In the days after the mass departure, the junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order, stressed the importance of migrant workers to Thailand’s economy and said it will simplify the registration process for an official work permit.
The case against Hall, whose passport has been confiscated by the government pending his trial, has triggered international concern.
United Nordic, an alliance of food companies from northern Europe, on Wednesday, said the case could further damage the Thai food industry.
A Natural Fruit factory in southern Thailand was investigated for a Finnwatch report coauthored by Hall, called Cheap Has a High Price, because it produced pineapple concentrate for Finnish supermarkets’ private-label products, the watchdog said.
Natural Fruit is also seeking US$10 million through a civil suit.