Labour Court to Commence Hearing 14 Myanmar Migrant Worker’s 44 Million Baht (US$1.25m) Forced Labour Claim Against Thai Chicken Export Giant Betagro and Others As Farm Owner Prosecutes the 14 Workers in Second Criminal Suit

Sun, 30 October 2016 | Read 2270

	Labour Court to Commence Hearing 14 Myanmar Migrant Worker’s 44 Million Baht (US$1.25m) Forced Labour Claim Against Thai Chicken Export Giant Betagro and Others As Farm Owner Prosecutes the 14 Workers in Second Criminal Suit

The litigation requests overturning a government compensation order and claims 44 million baht (US$1.25m) in labour law violations damages and compensation for abuses suffered by workers for years at Thammakaset farm 2.

The case has attracted support from 113, 000 international signatories attached to an online petition, gathered by Walk Free. These petition signatures were previously submitted to the Thai Broiler Processing Exporters Association on 2nd Sept. 2016 without any response. The Walk Free petition called on the poultry association to encourage their member company, Betagro to ensure owed compensation was provided to these 14 workers. The petition also called on Betagro to investigate working conditions throughout its supply chain, ensure effective grievance mechanisms and ensure no modern day slavery was condoned.

The litigation in this case, also filed on 2nd Sept. 2016 at Region 1 Labour Court, followed a 1st Aug. 2016 official compensation order by Lopburi Department of Labour Protection and Welfare requiring 1.7 million baht (US$50, 000) in past wages be paid by Thammakaset 2 farm to the 14 workers. The workers consider the order doesn’t award them adequate compensation for up to 5 years of abusive work conditions.

Workers allege grueling working days stretching up to 20 hours and forced overtime including sleeping in chicken rearing areas overnight. Further, the 14 workers allege unlawful deduction of salaries, threats of further deductions, confiscation of personal identity documents and limited freedom of movement. Workers allege they often could leave the farm for only up to 2 hours a week for an accompanied market visit.

Betagro failed to respond to both requests to ensure emergency accommodation and living support for the workers after they resigned from the farm in late Jun. 2016 and also to requests to ensure that adequate compensation was provided to the workers, following acknowledgement the company purchased from Thammakaset 2 farm. Betagro  should pledge adherence to UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, requiring companies to use leverage to ensure rights abuses in supply chains are remedied.

On 2nd Sept. 2016, Betagro without notice transferred 50, 000 Baht (US$1, 420) in humanitarian support to the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN) for the 14 workers, supplementing the Poultry Association’s 3, 000 baht (US$85) per worker also transferred to MWRN at the same time. Following initial refusal to respond by both the Poultry Association and Betagro, Thai Tuna Industry Association members instead promptly provided humanitarian assistance, work registration and employment for the workers. Betagro has continued to issue public statements to media and to its concerned overseas buyers and investors however denying the extent of the serious human rights abuses alleged by the 14 workers in this case. 

Two of the 14 workers have also been charged with multiple counts of theft from an employer, carrying up to 7 years imprisonment if found guilty, following a police complaint by the Thammakaset 2 farm owner in Jun. 2016. The complaint alleged worker timecards were removed from the employer’s possession and given to Lopburi Department of Labour Protection and Welfare officials as evidence of rights violations. In late Jun. 2016, local police arrested and detained one worker who was released after questioning and charge following Betagro’s provision of 75, 000 baht (US$2,200) bail. A second worker was questioned and charged being involved in the theft also in Aug. 2016 but released without needing to provide a bail surety. Police have yet to order whether to prosecute or sent this case for consideration of the Public Prosecutor.

In the latest development in this saga, on 28th Oct. 2016 lawyers for the 14 workers attended a hearing at Region 1 Labour Court to request to become a joint defendant to a case where Thammakasert Farm has requested revocation of Lopburi Labour Protection officials order in this case. Lawyers were informed during this hearing for negotiation between the two parties that Thammakaset Farm on 7th Oct. 2016 also launched a new second criminal suit at Don Muang Magistrate’s Court against the workers. This case against all 14 workers alleges criminal defamation in relation to the worker’s complaint in Jul. 2016 to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) regarding their alleged abuse. The workers legal team were previously unaware of this prosecution that is currently under consideration and in the process of sending prosecution documents to the 14 defendants, who have not yet received official notice of the prosecution. Thammakaset Farm has recently also threatened in correspondence sent to international civil society organisations and media as well as in interviews to journalists that it will file further litigation against those organisations making false and damaging allegations against it concerning worker conditions at the farm.

The Thai Broiler Processing Exporters Association has responded positively to pressure resulting from media coverage on this case and overseas poultry buyer’s deepening concerns on labour conditions in the sector by launching with the Department of Labour Protection and Welfare and Department of Livestock Development a Good Labour Practices (GLP) initiative for the Thai poultry industry on 19th Aug. 2016.

In Aug. 2016, the Director General of the Department of Labour Protection and Welfare (DLPW) however denied the severity of abuses alleged by the 14 workers insisting the case was just a labour dispute between workers and their employer and not one of forced labour, human trafficking, overwork or unlawful document retention. The 14 workers and MWRN petitioned the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC) to also review the case. The NHRC however backed up the DLPW position in a report allegedly issued by its staff to Betagro in late Aug. 2016, a week in advance of the workers/complainants even being informed of the findings. The 14 workers, with support from MWRN, are currently finalizing a formal complaint to the NHRC on the factual accuracy of its report as well as concerning its confused interpretation of international and domestic labour exploitation standards as applied to the case. 

This high profile abuse case is now drawing attention from senior Government officials and the international business, investor and diplomatic community as well as the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. This comes at a time when Thailand’s migrant worker management and protection policies as well as human trafficking record are under increased global scrutiny. Thailand’s poultry export industry has already come under serious scrutiny for its poor labour conditions in 2015 research reports published by corporate social responsibility watchdog groups Finnwatch and SwedwatchInternational and domestic rights groups continue to be concerned at the Thai Government and Thai poultry industry’s lack of attention to serious labour and human rights abuses in its farms, feed mills and factories.

Betagro is one of the Thai Broiler Processing Exporters Association leading members alongside CP, GFPT, Cargill, BRF, Laemthong Poultry, Panus Poultry, Centago and Bangkok Ranch. Thailand is the world’s 4th largest poultry exporter supplying chicken, often for use in processed or ready-made meals, and mostly to European Union and Japanese markets.

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