Myanmar workers in Thailand plead not guilty to criminal defamation

A group of Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand who complained to its human rights commission about their treatment at a chicken farm have appeared in court on criminal defamation charges, media reported.

The 14 workers pledged to fight a landmark case after they pleaded not guilty to criminal defamation at a court hearing in Bangkok on October 4, said a Thomson Reuters Foundation report published by the Bangkok Post on its online edition.

The report quoted the group’s lawyer, Mr Nakhon Chompuchat, as saying they were the first migrant workers in the kingdom to have been charged with criminal defamation.

The workers – nine men and five women from Bago Region – were granted bail ahead of the start of their trial next February, the report said.

They face a maximum penalty of 18 months in jail and a fine if convicted.

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The case follows a complaint the workers submitted to Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission in July last year alleging underpayment and other labour abuses at a chicken farm owned by the Thammakaset Co Ltd.

The company responded by filing the criminal defamation charges against the workers last October, saying their complaint to the commission had damaged its reputation.

Thammakaset denies the workers’ allegations that it paid them less than the daily minimum wage of 300 baht, underpaid them for working overtime and confiscated their identity documents in violation of Thailand’s Labour Protection Act.

The 14 workers are also involved in a separate case involving a complaint they filed in July 2016 with the Department of Labour Protection and Welfare about employment conditions at the chicken farm, Human Rights Watch said in a statement issued at the time.

It said the department found that Thammakaset had underpaid the workers and failed to give them adequate time off and ordered the company to pay them a total of 1.7 million baht (nearly K70 million) in compensation.

Thammakaset appealed to a labour court, which upheld the department’s decision. The company then appealed against the labour court’s verdict and the case is pending before the Supreme Court.

On November 4 last year, Thammakaset also filed complaints against British labour rights activist, Mr Andy Hall, alleging criminal defamation and a violation of the Computer-Related Crimes Act over his use of social media to seek justice for the 14 workers.

In September last year, Hall was given a suspended three-year jail sentence for criminal defamation over his role in exposing alleged labour abuses at a pineapple cannery run by the Natural Fruit Company.

Hall, who had worked for migrant labour rights in Thailand for 11 years, left the country on November 7 last year, saying he feared for his life.

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