British activist goes on trial in Thailand for defamation

British activist goes on trial in Thailand for defamation

BANGKOK - The defamation trial of a British activist began Tuesday in Bangkok after he co-authored a report alleging widespread labour abuses in Thailand's food industry, a prime supplier of cheap foodstuffs to Western supermarkets.

Andy Hall, 34, faces jail if convicted over lawsuits brought by Thai fruit processor Natural Fruit, after his report levelled accusations of forced and child labour, unlawfully low wages and long hours at one of its factories.

Natural Fruit is a major supplier to the European drink market, and the migrant rights campaigner has accused the company of trying to divert attention from the findings through its legal action.

Leading European food giants have called for the charges to be dropped, while rights groups have condemned the defamation proceedings from a Thai food industry that has faced a battery of bad headlines over recent months.

Prosecution witnesses are expected to begin testimony on Tuesday as the trial, which is linked to an interview Hall gave to the Al-Jazeera television network, gets under way.

Defamation is a criminal offence in Thailand and Hall, whose passport has been confiscated by Thai authorities pending the trial, could be jailed for up to a year if found guilty.

More serious charges under the computer crime act - which carries up to seven years in jail for each count - are due to be heard later in September.

Natural Fruit is also seeking $10 million through a civil suit.

Tip of the iceberg

Thailand taps the labour markets of poorer neighbours Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, whose migrants help keep major Thai industries from seafood to construction afloat.

But they often lack official work permits and are paid below the minimum wage.

"The exploitation has been getting worse and more confused and more messy," Hall told AFP ahead of the trial.

"The corruption is systematic. We haven't seen anyone addressing that... It is just the tip of the iceberg." Hall, who was supported by a dozen labour rights activists in court, made the allegations in a report last year for Finnish rights watchdog Finnwatch.

A Natural Fruit factory in southern Thailand was investigated for a Finnwatch report called "Cheap Has a High Price" because it produced pineapple concentrate for Finnish supermarkets' own-brand products, according to the watchdog.

Finnwatch has called on Thailand, the world's largest pineapple producer, to change its approach "instead of issuing threats and exploiting workers".

In June the US State Department downgraded Thailand to its lowest ranking in a report on human trafficking, highlighting abuses in the fisheries industry among others.

Thailand draws tens of thousands of migrants - often trafficked - from neighbouring countries "who are forced, coerced, or defrauded into labour or exploited in the sex trade," said the report, which was carried out before the military took power in their latest coup.

The new Thai junta triggered an exodus of Cambodian workers following May's coup by threatening to arrest and deport illegal labourers, although thousands have since returned.

The junta has since pledged to simplify the registration process for migrant workers seeking an official work permit.

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