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by Hilary Hamm

Marking this year’s International Human Rights Day, Concordia, along with 110 other organizations representing the public and private sectors, collectively penned a letter to the Prime Minister of Thailand. This letter calls for the repealed verdict against British human rights defender Andy Hall, who is currently facing defamation charges for his role in exposing labor abuses in the supply chain of Natural Fruit Co Ltd. Hall’s research was part of a 2013 Finnwatch report into the major Thai pineapple exporter. If the charges are not dropped, Hall will spend up to 10 years in a Thai prison, and Thailand sets a dangerous precedent not only for the treatment of human rights defenders, but also for the unrestricted power of corporations to conceal workers’ abuses free of repercussion.

These challenges facing Hall are anything but rare. Thai human rights defenders frequently run into legal challenges, making progress in Thai labor rights difficult – if not impossible.

Hall, a veteran defender of migrants’ rights in Thailand, has spent the past three and a half years in a virtual stalemate while companies have piled on lawsuits against him. Just weeks after his research was compiled into the report “Cheap Has a High Price” and published by Finnwatch, Natural Fruit Co Ltd had filed a lawsuit against him, and by September of this year, the Bangkok South Criminal Court had sentenced him to three years in prison and fined him 150,000 baht (roughly $4000 USD). Charged for multiple counts of defamation and computer crimes, Hall returned to the UK  in November after being acquitted for one set of these charges.

“It comes to a stage now where I feel like I don’t want to be caught in the system of repression and corruption as it strengthens. I can do the same work I do outside Thailand, it’s easier and I think will be more beneficial” Hall said to the Bangkok Post.

These challenges facing Hall are anything but rare. Thai human rights defenders frequently run into legal challenges, making progress in Thai labor rights difficult – if not impossible. In 2015, Thailand ranked among North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela in the lowest category of the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report. However, in 2016, it moved from Tier 3 to Tier 2, marking efforts in policy that seek to improve human rights in the country.

Trafficking and labor abuses exist across industries, but the seafood industry has garnished specific media and market attention as of late. “We wanted to work more with the whole seafood industry, but they weren’t willing to come on board and adhere to these advanced international standards as easily,” Hall explained.

In contrast to the industry’s reluctance, Thai Union demonstrated leadership by implementing a zero recruitment service fee project this year. This project will enable the more than 30,000 migrant workers employed by Thai Union to avoid repressive fees that often lead to forced labor, trafficking, or enslavement. By working with activists like Andy Hall, Thai Union benefits two-fold by mitigating risk and increasing profit potential in a consumer environment that increasingly demands ethical sourcing.

“The reason why we work with them now is because we have always been fighting with them,” said Hall. “We used to condemn them over and over again for trafficking, slavery and child labour, but now we make the change more productively together.”

The international community owes many thanks to Andy Hall and other labor rights activists. Were it not for them, labor abuse would continue to be commonplace. We urge the Thai government to not only drop the charges against Andy Hall, but to amend its legal structures that allow labor abuse to flourish and go unpenalized.

Concordia’s Campaign Against Labor Trafficking aims to combat abuse in the seafood sector in Southeast Asia. To learn more about the Campaign or how to get involved, please contact Hanne Dalmut at hdalmut@concordia.net.