Andy Hall: British human rights activist facing jail in Thailand for exposing sweatshop labour

Writer faces seven years in a Thai jail plus an £8m fine for contributing to a report that exposed sweated immigrant labour in the country. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have little reach there, which is why he says his struggle must go on

Ross Davies
Tuesday 29 March 2016 11:56 BST
Andy Hall faces seven years in prison
Andy Hall faces seven years in prison

Carefully parsing the drinks menu at the hotel bar, Andy Hall finally decides on a milkshake - and I sense that is not entirely at ease in five-star sheen of the Hilton in St Julian’s, Malta.

The disconnect is understandable, given that the British humans rights activist is more accustomed to dividing his time between factories in Thailand and his small office in Bangkok – or, more recently, the inside of a court room.

There’s stuff on his mind. Hall is currently being prosecuted for defamation by a Thai fruit company: if found guilty, he faces a seven-year jail sentence, as well as a fine of up to 400 million Thai baht (£7.9m). For the second time in as many years, a Bangkok court has taken control of his passport. Apart from this visit to Malta, where he is speaking at a conference, and a brief trip to Burma earlier in the week, Hall is banned from travelling outside Thailand under his bail conditions. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “I am not a flight risk. Why they feel the need to put these blocks on me, I don’t know. I’m disappointed.”

The Foreign Office, while supportive of Hall’s case, has erred on the side of soft diplomacy in his defence – its stance also clearly disappoints him – but he displays no trace of indignation at his plight. A practicing Buddhist, perhaps that’s his Zen coming through - or, more likely, a sense of inurement to the whims of the Thai legal system. After all, his troubles now date back to 2012, when Finnwatch, a Finnish NGO, employed Hall as a freelancer to conduct field research into the treatment of shop-floor employees by Thai companies.

The resulting report, Cheap Has a High Price – published in January 2013 – highlighted the appalling conditions in which migrants from Burma were working, alleging illegally low wages, unsafe working conditions and discriminatory treatment of migrant workers (all interviewed by Hall) as well as human rights violations at the pineapple processing facility of the Natural Fruit Company. Natural Fruit denied the allegations, and almost immediately brought defamation charges against Hall. Seven preliminary hearings later, he faces two criminal and two civil charges. (The additional criminal case relates to an Al Jazeera interview Hall gave in Burma.) Natural Fruit also accuses Hall of violating the country’s Computer Crimes Act, which bans online material considered a threat to national security – simply because his name is on the front page of the Finnwatch report.

The latter is the most severe of all the cases against Hall – whose trial begins on 19 May – and alone carries a seven-year penalty. But he says: “It’s not my report, and I didn’t put it on the internet. The Computer Crimes Act is not meant to cover normal criminal defamation – which is up to one year in prison. The two are different.”

Natural Fruit could not be reached for comment. Meanwhile, Hall’s knowledge of the ins and outs of Thai law testifies to an impressive CV. Thirty-seven years old, and a working-class lad from Spalding in Lincolnshire, he has a first-class honours law degree from University College London; he speaks fluent Thai; and previous employment includes stints as a criminology, sociology and law tutor at the Universities of Melbourne and Cardiff.

So what prompted him to up sticks and leave the seemingly cushy world of academia for South-east Asia in the first place? “I was 24, and had just finished my PhD in corporate social responsibility when I realised I didn’t know anything about the world,” he says. “I ended up not submitting my PhD, which my supervisor wasn’t best pleased about, and went to stay with a friend and travel round Thailand instead.”

It was during this period that Hall was first exposed the daily plight of Thailand’s migrant labourers. “I remember coming across a hotel construction site in Chiang Mai,” he recalls. “I saw many of these workers from Burma were disabled, and were dying every day in construction accidents. In particular, there was this one lady who was disabled, and she couldn’t get any help or compensation, because she was an irregular. So I contacted the local NGO, started a project on occupational health and safety, and began fighting this lady’s case. That, in turn, brought me into a fight with the Thai migration policy, and it all went from there.”

Hall worked for the Bangkok-based Human Rights and Development Foundation from 2007 to 2011, before heading across the border to become a migration advisor to the Burmese government, as a part of an EU-funded scheme. But since his return, he’s found himself becoming the story. “It’s horrible to see your name in lights,” he says. “It’s like people want me to feel weird or strange for doing what I am doing.”

But, publicity surrounding Hall – whether he likes it or not – has undoubtedly created greater awareness around Thai labour and human rights abuses, according to Sonja Vartiala, executive director of Finnwatch. “We are seeing more industry leaders pushing for change,” she says. “Since 2013, we have also managed to reveal labour abuses in many different Thai export industries, including rubber gloves, glassware, chicken, mangoes and baby products. This has led to positive changes in migrant workers’ lives.”

But the task ahead remains nothing short of herculean. There are no trade unions for migrant workers in Thailand. A recent investigation by the Associated Press revealed widespread abuses in the seafood industry, including shrimp processing facilities manned by Burmese slaves and children. And for Bangkok-based writer Nick Dudley-Jones, who lives close to a Burmese community, the treatment of workers from Burma as “second-class citizens” is as palpable as it is endemic. “I live in the Khlong Toei district of the city,” he says, “and many of the families live in tin-shack slums. But even then, they’ll be moved out to make way for new construction – which, ironically, will be done by Burmese workers.

“Recently, I was at a local restaurant where I noticed the waitress, who is from Burma, had stopped wearing Thanaka paste on her cheeks [a national custom]. She said it was so that customers would think she was Thai and give her a tip. If they know she was from Burma, they wouldn’t.’”

Perhaps nothing has stirred tensions around the treatment of Burmese migrants in Thailand quite like the recent case of two British backpackers found murdered on the island of Koh Tao. On Christmas Eve last year, migrant workers Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo were found guilty, and sentenced to death, for the murder of David Miller and the rape and murder of Hannah Witheridge, whose battered bodies had been found on a beach in the popular tourist destination. However, much of the trial and investigation has come under scrutiny, including claims the defendants were tortured into confessing the crime, and that local police officers botched DNA evidence from the scene.

In his role as advisor to the Migrant Worker Rights Network, Hall is part of the two defendants’ defence team, which is now launching an appeal. But is he reluctant to take on the case, when the two victims were from his home country? “No,” he answers flatly. “In fact, I didn’t take an express interest in the case initially, because people die in Thailand every day. It was only when we got reports of torture that we sent a team to Koh Tao.”

Nonetheless, Hall has been the victim of threats for involving himself in the case. “I’ve had to block a few people on Twitter,” he says. “I’ve spent a lot of time with the guys [Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo] and I’ve become close to them. But I can’t tell you whether they did it or not because the investigation was a farce and not in accordance with international standards. And if it can’t be proven beyond reasonable doubt, they should be acquitted.”

Hall often refers to Thailand as “dangerous place”; no more so than for human rights activists. Between 2002 and 2013, Human Rights Watch recorded more than 30 deaths of human rights activists and environmentalists in Thailand. (Some, such as Por Cha Lee Rakchongcharoen, from Kaeng Krachan National Park, have simply disappeared.)

Anticipating the next question, he brushes it off almost immediately. “No, I don’t think my life is in danger,” he says. “If I was Burmese or Thai, perhaps I’d have been assassinated a long time ago but, because of the profile I have and the work I can do, I feel insulated from any danger.”

Before meeting Hall, I speak with his friend Alan Morison, an Australian journalist and former editor a small online news website Phuketwan, who knows only too well what a Thai courtroom looks like. In 2013, he and his colleague Chutima Sidasathian became embroiled in a defamation case with the Thai Navy for a 41-word paragraph included in an article on people-trafficking of Muslim Rohingyas from Burma, which had originally featured in a Reuters feature. Finally acquitted of charges in September, he says: “These are bad laws that were never intended for use against journalists or human rights defenders. It’s as if some still believe the cover-up is an appropriate response to valid work by journalists and human rights defenders.

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, echoes this sentiment. “The criminalisation of free expression seen in the prosecution of Andy Hall sends a chilling message to NGOs and journalists that investigating supply chain sources can be met with severe oppression,” he says. “An unholy alliance between rights-abusing businessmen and military dictators raises fundamental concerns about whether the powers that be in Bangkok have any interest in ensuring real corporate accountability for rights abuses.”

Such clamours don’t appear to be falling on deaf ears. A #freeandyhall hashtag continues to trend on Twitter, while a number of politicians, including shadow Business Secretary Angela Eagle and MEP Glenis Willmott, have lobbied the EU to intervene on his behalf. Perhaps it’s the David and Goliath angle? “I don’t know about that,” says Hall, “but I would say there is nobody doing the kind of work I’m doing on the ground in Thailand. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International – they won’t dare. There’s an absence of these international organisations, which is why I got involved in the first place.”

Hall lets out a stretch. His milkshake long since drained, our time’s up. And he’s already thinking about MWRN commitments for the following week, as well as the prospect of having to return his passport to the Thai authorities. “If there’s one silver lining on this whole case, it’s that it’s brought more focus on migrant issues and human rights defenders,” he says. “I do take solace from that.”

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