14 September, Region 1 Labour Court in Saraburi Province of Thailand read a ruling of the Supreme Court of Thailand approving as final an order of 1.7 million Thai baht in compensation (US$52, 000) to 14 migrant workers from Myanmar. The ruling comes in a landmark test case in which the workers alleged forced labour and other rights violations at Thammakaset chicken farm in Lopburi Province, previously contracted to supply poultry to Thai poultry export giant Betagro.
Today’s ruling dismissed Thammakaset’s second appeal requesting overturning of a 1st August 2016 official compensation order by Lopburi Department of Labour Protection and Welfare (DLPW) requiring 1.7 million Thai baht (US$52, 000) in past wages to be paid by the farm to the 14 workers. The Supreme Court, approving a previous decision of the Region 1 Labour Court, rejected Thammakaset’s appeal against the DLPW order for the final time. The compensation money, lodged with the Court as condition of the appeal, will now be received by the workers.
The 14 worker’s own litigation, claiming 44 million baht (US$1.25m) in damages and compensation for abuses suffered and filed against Betagro, Thammakaset and Lopburi DLPW officials on 2nd Sept. 2016, also at Region 1 Labour Court, remains pending a final ruling of the Supreme Court expected later this year. The workers consider the DLPW order doesn’t award them adequate compensation for up to 5 years of abusive work conditions. The workers alleged grueling working days stretching up to 20 hours and forced overtime including sleeping in chicken rearing areas overnight. Further, the workers alleged unlawful deduction of salaries, threats of further deductions, confiscation of personal identity documents and limited freedom of movement.
This test case has attracted considerable international attention, including online campaigns gathering support of more than 70, 000 international signatories, numerous statements by leading civil society groups as well as an unprecedented open letter from the EU's Foreign Trade Association (FTA) calling for an 'Out of Court Settlement.' Thai officials and the international business, investor and diplomatic community as well as the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have also expressed ongoing interest or engaged in the case.
The Thai Tuna Industry Association’s members provided humanitarian assistance and employment for the 14 workers, who continue to work in Thailand’s seafood export processing sector, following their resignation from Thammakaset. Betagro has issued public statements denying the extent of some of the serious human rights abuses alleged by the 14 workers in this case.
Two of the 14 workers were additionally 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 farm owner in Jun. 2016. The complaint alleged time-cards were removed from the employer’s possession and given to Lopburi DLPW officials as evidence of labour rights violations and long working hours. The case was initially recommended for prosecution by Lopburi Police but was eventually dropped following an order not to prosecute by Lopburi Public Prosecutor Office. Thammakset stated they have recently revived the case by filing a new criminal prosecution against the 2 workers at Lopburi Court.
In October 2016, Thammakaset launched a criminal suit at Don Muang Magistrate’s Court against the 14 workers also. This case alleged criminal defamation in relation to the worker’s complaint in July 2016 to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) regarding their alleged abuse. The Court accepted the case for a full criminal trial and the workers will formally be arrested and indicted by 4th October 2017. A Nordic poultry importer has recently come forward to cover all expected bail costs for the workers to help to ensure their temporary release on bail pending the full criminal trial.
Additionally, in November 2016, Thammakaset also filed criminal defamation and computer crimes litigation against former MWRN international affairs advisor Andy Hall at Bangkok South Criminal Court concerning his use of social media campaigning on the controversial case. Hall left Thailand in November 2016 stating his inability to work amidst increasing judicial harrassment.
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 DLPW 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 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.
As is now subject to criminal litigation, the 14 workers and MWRN petitioned the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC) in July 2016 to also review the case. The NHRC however backed up the DLPW position in its own report. The 14 workers then, with support from MWRN, submitted a pending formal complaint to the Lawyers Council of Thailand requesting that the factual accuracy of and process of compiling and investigating the NHRC report be carefully investigated.
The Thammakset case 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 Swedwatch. International 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.
Last month, the International Trade Union Congress (ITUC) specifically highlighted the Thammakset case in its written submission concerning Thailand’s alleged ongoing breaches of ILO Convention 29 on Forced Labour to the ILO’s Committee of Expert in Geneva, Switzerland.Betagro, which have stated they no longer source from Thammakaset, is a leading member of the Thai Broiler Processing Exporters Association 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.