Opinion: it's time to drop the charges against Andy Hall in Thailand
By Fresh Fruit Portal editor Matthew Ogg
As the world looks to the bogus trials and imprisonment of Australian journalist Peter Greste and his colleagues Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed in Egypt, there is another battle against free speech raging in Thailand, where the military has taken power in an operation it has ordered the media not to describe as a 'coup'.
It is unfortunate such issues only tend to come to light when westerners are involved, but this is the reality for a British academic who interviewed migrant workers from a Thai fruit factory to understand the conditions they were living under, and published the findings in a report with Finland-based NGO Finnwatch.
His name is Andy Hall, and as a result of his work he is facing four criminal and civil cases that could involve owing damages of more than US$10 million, and up to seven years of jail time. The prosecutor is called Natural Fruit Company Ltd, a pineapple and other fruit juice processor based in the province of Prachuap Khiri Khan.
Right now I won't go into the details of the report itself, which have been published widely by the international media. If you would like further background, you can view our reports on the case since it began in April last year.
The courts will ultimately decide whether Hall's acts were legal or illegal under Thailand's judicial system, but the way the previous Thai government handled the issue shows it had very little understanding of how to conduct an objective audit of a company.
One week after the Finnwatch report was published, its inspection involved interviews with the factory manager, an HR rep and just six migrant workers from Myanmar. A letter about the issue by the Royal Thai Embassy in London did not mention whether the processor had prior warning of the inspection or not, and after citing a couple of issues including the rounding down of decimals in overtime payment calculations, it said the company was in compliance with the law.
Earlier this month, the authorities processing the case then showed a lack of understanding of whistleblower protection during court proceedings. On his Twitter account, Hall said judges had requested to meet and interrogate the migrant workers he had interviewed in order to check facts. In a country that was recently demoted to the lowest status in measures to prevent human trafficking abuses, if I were any Myanmar worker I would not trust the system to protect me should I speak out against my employer, regardless of who they might be.
But this is beside the point. For Hall to give up the names and identities of the workers he interviewed would be a betrayal of his integrity, and I doubt he'll do it. For the judges to even consider asking such a thing, it shows they too do not grasp the trust issues involved with worker welfare audits, nor the profession to which Hall has dedicated himself so passionately.
For Natural Fruit to claim defamation and libel charges against Hall implies the contents of the report were lies, but Hall appears to firmly believe what he has written and said, and has put his fate in the hands of Thai justice. Previously, he was living in Myanmar and working with a group called the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN), and could have easily avoided trial by staying clear of Thailand altogether.
He did not, and flew to Bangkok to face the music.
To me, that does not seem like something a liar would do.
Since then he has had his passport confiscated as if he were trying to escape trial - which he clearly isn't - and spent a couple of brief but very uncertain hours in a cell.
Strangely, it is the seafood industry in Thailand that has shown support for Hall in his efforts to protect human rights, as the Thai Frozen Foods Association (TFFA) and the Thai Tuna Industry Association (TTIA) offered him bail in the Natural Fruit trial.
In contrast, the Thai Food Processors Association (TFPA) - which includes several fruit and vegetable companies - did not.
Cold response from the British Embassy
But it is not just Thailand's fruit industry that has kept a neutral stance on the matter. In June, Hall told me the British Embassy was giving him the same level of support that would be offered to an accused pedophile.
In a recent correspondence, a representative of the U.K.'s Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) in Thailand said the office did not attend trials in a consular capacity, unless there were exceptional circumstances such as potential for the death penalty to be imposed.
"Our staff are not legally trained and cannot, therefore, comment on proceedings; nor can we provide interpretation of those proceedings," the representative said.
"However, the British Embassy sent a representative to this hearing in his capacity as a political analyst to observe proceedings. This does not mean that we will necessarily attend future hearings."
In a previous correspondence, Hall requested the FCO urge Thailand and Natural Fruit to cease reprisals against him, including the dropping of charges, and that they remedy concerns raised in the Finnwatch report. He also asked that they comply with the United Nations (UN) Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights by respecting human rights, including the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
To this request, the FCO gave a largely symbolic level of support.
"As Mr. Hall is aware, we have raised his case with the Thai authorities through our Ambassador to Thailand and through the EU.
"However, the UK is not able to interfere in an ongoing judicial process, nor attempt to influence the outcome of a trial; nor can we request that the Thai court or authorities drop charges. Mr. Hall should continue to defend his case through his lawyer.
"We continue to raise the issue of labour rights in general with the Thai authorities, including those of migrant workers. This is an issue to which the UK attaches great importance and that we have raised with the Government of Thailand and will continue to raise with the current authorities."
The representative added Britain had scaled down its relationship with Thailand in response to the suspension of the country's Constitution, and would continue to do so bilaterally and through multinational fora such as the EU.
"We expect all states to uphold their international obligations, including the right to a fair trial."
It's time to drop the charges
I don't hold high expectations that the a large section of the produce industry will call on Natural Fruit to drop the charges against Hall, but here's why I think it should.
While no industry is perfect, the produce sector has worked hard over the course of decades to improve the lives of farmworkers. In places like the United States, Europe and elsewhere, NGOs and governments have and will likely continue to audit a range of industries, including fruits and vegetables.
If we are to look at this from a strictly economic or competitive perspective, that progress can imply a certain cost for growers and manufacturers who do not have recourse to exploit workers if they are so inclined. However, it is a cost that most are willing to bear for both humanitarian reasons and the fact that good labor practices are a win with consumers. Additionally, in most key fruit-growing countries, suing independent auditors may not be a viable option legally, or simply in terms of the public relations implications.
And even if it were, the potential punishment for the auditor would be unlikely to include jail time.
In this context, regardless of how labor conditions actually are in Thailand (the recent report released by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shows Thailand's overall situation for migrant workers is dismal), or whether Hall is right or wrong, the Thai industry gains an unfair advantage against other nations from the fact that cases like this actually can take place, and regardless of their outcome these litigations stoke fear of reprisals in would-be auditors.
It's time for the industry to turn Thailand's position from one of advantage because auditors are under threat for doing their jobs, to one of transparency through improved practices; this includes compliance with the aforementioned UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
Paul McCartney once said, "if slaughterhouses had glass walls everyone would be vegetarian". If you apply the same concept of "glass walls" to the produce industry's packhouses and processors, I'm sure some companies would need adjustments but very few consumers would give up fruits and vegetables. Why? Because most fruit businesses have nothing to hide.
Hall will face court again on Sept. 2. If you would like to support him with what look to be some fairly high legal costs, Youcaring.com has set up a page where donations can be made. The site includes Hall's contact details if you would like to directly offer him support.