Thai company's defamation trial against workers begins

BANGKOK — A court in Thailand began hearing testimony Wednesday in the latest battle between a poultry producer and 14 migrant workers from Myanmar who say they were exploited.

Nakhon Chomphuchat, the lawyer for the workers accused of criminal defamation, said Thammakaset Farm presented four witnesses seeking to disprove the workers' claims of abuse.

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 company, which was a supplier for Thai agribusiness export giant Betagro, is also suing two workers and a labor activist for theft for taking their time cards to document their allegations of labor law violations. That trial will be later this month.

The dispute is considered significant for two main reasons.

Critics have contended that Thailand's criminal defamation law is open to abuse, and consider this a good example of how it can be used against whistle blowers.

"The criminal defamation case against 14 migrant workers for reporting abusive labor conditions threatens all rights enforcement bodies in Thailand," New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement this week. "The government should publicly oppose the employer's charges and protect the ability of government agencies to act on complaints of wrongdoing."

The case has also caused concern in Thailand's huge agro-business sector, a major export earner. It can be seen as exposing abuse in the supply chain, which could expose companies and even entire sectors to economic sanctions by importing countries. Some in the industry have pushed for a settlement outside court, but Thammakaset has refused conciliation offers.

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.

The company says the allegations caused it damage, which is the basis for its lawsuit, which could see each worker get up to 1 ½ years' imprisonment and a fine of about $1,000.

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