Thai court acquits migrant poultry workers of defamation

BANGKOK — A court in Thailand on Wednesday dismissed criminal defamation charges brought against 14 migrant workers by their former employer, a poultry farm they had accused of labor and human rights violations. The ruling is considered significant because the workers' supporters and other social activists say such lawsuits have a chilling effect on whistle blowers.

The case filed by Thammakaset Co. claimed the company had suffered losses due to allegations made by the workers in a 2016 complaint filed with Thailand's National Human Rights Commission. The company said the allegations against it caused Thai agribusiness giant Betagro to drop it as a supplier.

Defense lawyer Nakhon Chomphuchat confirmed that Bangkok's Don Muang Magistrates Court ruled Wednesday that the workers' claims of abuses were made in good faith and with a basis in the facts, absolving them of responsibility. Had they been found guilty, each defendant could have been given up to 1 1/2 years in prison and a fine of about $1,000.

Company executives reached by phone declined to comment on the court's ruling.

The workers' original complaint, according to the Thailand-based Migrant Worker Rights Network, which has given them assistance, said they had been forced to work up to 20 hours per day without a day off during 40 or more days. It also charged that they had been paid less than the minimum wage, were provided with no overtime compensation, and had their freedom of movement restricted and their identity documents confiscated.

Thailand's Department of Labor Protection and Welfare has already ordered the company to pay the workers 1.7 million baht ($50,000) in compensation and damages for their claims of overwork and underpayment, but the money has been held up while the company appeals the case.

The case disturbed some members of Thailand's huge agro-business sector, a major export earner. It put a spotlight on abuse in the supply chain, which could expose companies and even entire sectors to economic sanctions by importing countries. Some in the industry pushed for a settlement outside court, but Thammakaset has refused conciliation offers.

Thammakaset also filed a criminal complaint against two of the 14 workers and a Migrant Worker Rights Network coordinator for the alleged "theft" of time cards taken by the workers to show labor officials evidence of their claims about a 20-hour working day.

A British labor activist, Andy Hall, who publicized the workers' claims, was also sued for defamation. A Thai appeals court in May this year overturned a lower court's conviction of Hall.

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