Private Sector Support for Human Rights Defenders - A Personal Experience
Back in early 2013, I decided to refuse bail on criminal defamation and computer crimes charges filed against me by Natural Fruit Company in Thailand. The charges were the company’s response to a Finnwatch report on alleged human rights abuses in its pineapple processing factory. I felt spending the years that followed my indictment languishing in a Thai jail, awaiting a trial that would eventually vindicate me, was the only principled response to protest my innocence and the injustice I was facing as a human rights defender (HRD).
In some ways I still felt lucky given so many activists in Thailand disappear or are assassinated for similar work. But researching alleged human rights abuses should never be a crime. Hence, I realized I had to take a firm and public stand to highlight my situation, and more importantly the systematic exploitation millions of workers face in Thailand’s migrant-intensive and labour-intensive supply chains.
As the months passed following initial news of my prosecution, a desire to set positive precedents from this situation dawned on me. Perhaps I didn’t need to be a martyr to protest this injustice after all.
Instead, I could ensure responsible companies be distinguished from irresponsible ones and encouraged to support HRDs at risk. And so it was that the Thai Tuna Industry Association (TTIA), Thai Frozen Foods Association (TFFA) and Thai Union Group (TU) agreed, as per my request, to cover the bail surety required to ensure my release from detention pending trial.
As my work became seemingly more effective in galvanising change to combat systematic exploitation of migrant workers in Thailand, the following years also saw an increase in strategic lawsuits against public participation (‘SLAPP’ cases) filed against me, colleagues at the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN) and 14 migrants allegedly working under forced labour conditions at Thammakaset poultry farm.
As a result of this deteriorating situation, widespread calls were made on the Thai government to assist in resolving the Natural Fruit and Thammakaset disputes and to adhere with its state’s ‘duty to protect’ human rights under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). But the government insisted these prosecutions were private disputes that independent courts should adjudicate on alone, whilst at the same time promising to enact anti-SLAPP legislation and enhance protection for HRDs in the future.
Meanwhile, companies and associations increasingly supported us. Numerous statements were issued by Nordic companies, and by business associations such as Amfori and the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI). In seeking to remedy this judicial onslaught against us, some private sector actors went even further, justifying their action under the ‘respect’ and ‘remedy’ human rights principles of the UNGPs.
Finnish retailer S-Group flew to Bangkok to testify at my trial. S-Group also provided, through Freedom Fund, the €12,000 deposit required to appeal the recent decision by a Thai Court that I pay €270,000 in civil defamation damages to Natural Fruit. TTIA and TU, alongside Finnwatch, paid a fine to ensure my release from detention following my conviction in 2016, prior to this conviction being overturned in May 2018.
S Group supporting Andy Hall in Thailand, 2016 (personal archive)
Nordic companies and a Thai poultry firm transferred funds to be used by the 14 former Thammakaset workers as bail when indicted, to pay fines if convicted (they were eventually acquitted) and to cover some of their burgeoning legal defence costs. Alongside Amfori and ETI, these companies also sought to promote reconciliation in the dispute primarily to ensure these workers could be remedied in line with a 1.7 million Baht government compensation order issued in the workers favour back in 2016 (it remains unpaid). Nordic and other companies assumed wider supply chain responsibility for all exploited workers in their sector, and support for HRDs, as a general basis on which to act.
Companies are often risk averse with lawyers advising against public engagement for fear of assuming liability. Hence, I have reasons to assume that additional private sector support for us has happened behind the scenes. It’s clear that some private sector actors indeed respect and appreciate the work we do.
In contrast to these positive developments, other European private sector actors avoided engagement on the basis that Thammakaset and Natural Fruit were not in their direct supply chains. Assistance from US, Japanese and Australian companies was also sought to no avail. Concerningly, Lidl, Aldi and Rewe simply suspended sourcing poultry from Thailand once the Thammakaset case went public, rather than engaging with the issues.
Today we are witnessing steps by private sector actors towards more systematic development of corporate responsibility principles and due diligence standards. It seems the right moment to also develop standards for business support for rights’ defenders, as the UN Working Group on business and human rights is doing.
Private sector support for cases relating to my work in Thailand has been positive. But two crucial challenges remain:
- Apart from Adidas, Coca Cola and FIFA, no other companies I am aware of have developed explicit corporate HRDs policies. In the face of daily reports of attacks, killings, and SLAPP prosecutions against HRDs, its crucial more companies develop and systematically apply such HRDs policies to address these risks. Support for the work of HRDs contributes alongside audits and multi-stakeholder initiatives to show that companies take supply chain due diligence obligations under the UNGPs seriously.
- A major challenge HRDs face results from being unable to work constructively with leading companies to address the systematic exploitation in global supply chains before conflict becomes public, acrimonious and aggressive. The basis for this challenge is a continuing lack of supply chain traceability and transparency. Positive examples exist where companies such as Marks & Spencer and H&M publish information allowing anyone to link workplaces in at risk countries to their companies. However, in most situations, linking rights violations on the ground to major brands with leverage to resolve these abuses remains challenging if not impossible in practice.
It has been a source of great encouragement that my own personal fight against worker exploitation has met with so much private sector support, alongside sustained campaigns of traditional allies like trade unions, NGOs and parliamentarians. The harassment me and my colleagues continue to face in Thailand is however minor compared to that faced by many other HRDs globally who continue to be killed and attacked.
It is hoped that some of the positive precedents set by private sector actors in support of HRDs, as outlined here, can contribute as best practice towards more systematic and sustainable engagement on these issues by more companies in the future. Direct support by private sector actors to HRDs, coupled with increased traceability and transparency in supply chains, can make working on business and human rights issues less risky, more constructive and more meaningful.
For ideas and guidance on how companies can protect and support human rights defenders and civic freedoms, check out our report Shared Space Under Pressure.