#BAD13: Thailand’s harassment of a British migrant rights defender
In February 2013, Natural Fruit Company Ltd. launched multiple criminal and civil cases against me for broadcasting false statements regarding a Finnwatch report on Thailand’s food production. My interviews with Myanmar workers as part of this report raised allegations against the company, with reportedly powerful political connections, of unlawful wages, confiscation of passports, child labour and excessive overtime. The company and Thai authorities didn’t respond to the research allegations prior to the report’s release. An inspection of Natural Fruit’s premises later highlighted some illegalities but overall inspection methods are still being questioned.
Five UN rights experts requested the Thai government to explain how conditions at Natural Fruit were assessed, raised serious concerns regarding my harassment for legitimate human rights activities and asked how the government would guarantee my rights and freedoms. Only a limited reply was forthcoming. In contrast, both the Thai and British governments insist they cannot intervene in this apparent harassment against a rights defender as my case is a dispute between private parties. Both noted however I was engaged in worthwhile promotion of migrant rights and Secretary of State Hugo Swire did raise my case whilst in Thailand and in Parliament.
The Bangkok South Criminal Court and Nakhon Pathom Civil Court continue hearings in my cases whilst Natural Fruit Company Ltd. recently filed a third defamation case against me relating to an Aljazeera report. I went to answer these fresh charges at a Bangkok police station last week but left and filed a complaint after my signature was sought on a confession.
Convincing 3-4 million migrant workers from Myanmar in Thailand that they are strong enough to organise and stand up for their rights has kept me occupied for almost a decade now. Supporting development of the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN) to have a real migrant voice led me in 2012 to organise Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s first overseas trip after her detention. After a decade of non-interference, these charges against me now are surely politically motivated and these cases are likely an attempt to silence me and my networks for our successful work to support migrant workers from Myanmar in Thailand and raise the profile of the abuses they face.
In terms of irregular migration, trafficking, forced and child labour, Thailand is a country on a par with Afghanistan, Chad, Iraq and Niger and remains on the US State Department “Tier 2 Watch List”, one category above the lowest rating. Supermarkets across Europe, America, Australia and Japan however stock products sourced from Thailand in industries whose workforce consists of mostly migrants, the majority from Myanmar. Prawns, seafood, fish derivatives, chicken and rubber gloves are just a few of the items.
Now the EU is negotiating a free trade agreement with Thailand and migrant rights and the protection of those advocating for a stronger voice for migrant workers needs to be raised. Consumers, the trade union movement, the ILO and Governments should also raise awareness of and seek to address the poor situation of migrants in Thailand, until now, still a relatively unorganised and silenced labour force seeking to survive in a country that is not their own. After a decade of work, I am convinced only international pressure linked to trade, and the real and meaningful power of consumers, can bring change to workers conditions in Thailand. This pressure can importantly provide workers with a voice and allow them space to really organise.
Eventually the cases against me will come to Court. When it becomes clear my research is credible and in the public interest, and if the court system is transparent and just, all charges will surely be dismissed. Whatever the personal costs, I will fight through my case for basic principles applicable to all rights defenders whatever nationality, and wherever we work. Rights defenders, including organisations, researchers, activists and journalists must be able to promote rights of others through our work free of this kind of harassment I currently face.
Detailed information on my case can be found on my blog.