The 14 Burmese migrant poultry farm workers in Thailand that were facing criminal defamation charges for criticizing their former employer can now breathe a sigh of relief following their acquittal by the Don Muang Magistrates Court in Bangkok.
The court found that the workers had filed a complaint against their employer in good faith to protect their rights, as guaranteed by the Thai constitution and international conventions.
But there are no real winners in this case.
The workers may have been spared jail and have their compensation, but do they really have much else to celebrate?
Their former employer has been tied up in a lengthy legal battle, and has lost a major client, after the latter cut its ties with the farm.
And the reputation of the country’s poultry industry is certainly not enhanced if its members are following, or are alleged to be following, questionable practices and attempting to punish critics, rather than addressing concerns.
The case of the Burmese migrants has been ongoing for a couple of years.
The group first alleged that they had been subjected to grueling work conditions and forced labor back in 2016, claiming that they had been forced to work for 22 hours a day and, at times, had to sleep in chicken sheds. They also said that their freedom of movement had been restricted.
They took their case to the local Department of Labor Protection and Welfare, which found that the company had violated Thailand’s Labor Protection Act, and ordered the payment of over US$50,000 in compensation.
The farm owner, which at that time was a supplier to a major Thai Food conglomerate, continually denied the allegations, unsuccessfully appealed the compensation demand, and eventually raised a criminal defamation complaint, contending that the complainants had damaged the company’s reputation - which has just been dismissed.
This is not the first time that Thai poultry producers’ working practices have come under the spotlight or found to be lacking, but this most recent case has attracted perhaps more attention than it otherwise would have merited, in part due to its ongoing nature.
In 2015, two business relations and corporate responsibility organizations alleged that some Thai broiler companies were coming close to using forced labor, not a the sort of publicity that anyone would welcome.
However, one of the largest companies to be criticized openly responded to the allegations, and sought to adopt remedies where its working practices were found to be lacking. While there can be no excuse for poor working practices, a willingness to acknowledge, respond and address problems at least limits reputational damage and helps to ensure that criticism dies down.
Nobody want litigious employees, but dragging complainants through the courts with the possibility of a year in jail and fines, probably does little to restore a company’s reputation and may well damage it further still.