In what is believed to be a first for Thailand, a court in Bangkok is hearing a defamation trial against 14 migrant workers from Myanmar.
Their offence is simply to have claimed they were overworked and underpaid which, given the treatment of migrant labour in the country, almost goes without saying.
Thammakaset, the owner of the Thai chicken farm where they worked, filed a complaint claiming the workers’ actions had cost the company business; that they had defamed the company and given false information to public officials, offences that could land them in jail.
Thammakaset said Betagro, a multinational company to which it supplied meat, had cut its ties as a result of the publicity surrounding the case.
The workers’ defence lawyer said they had been forced to work 20-hour days without overtime, lived in squalid conditions and had their passports confiscated.
“The workers just filed a complaint because they thought their rights were violated and asked for an independent body to investigate," the lawyer said.
A ruling on the case is not expected for several weeks.
Migrant workers are not allowed to belong to trade unions, and often the only avenue open to them is to turn whistle-blower and appeal to human rights activists.
The case is significant because if successful, employers may see the defamation weapon as an effective way of silencing worker complaints.
In Thailand’s corporate culture, judges may well regard damage to companies’ reputations as a more serious offence than labour exploitation – especially if non-Thai citizens are the only ones involved.
Sonja Vartiala, Director of Finnwatch, a Finnish civil rights group that regularly reports on labour issues in Thailand, said the workers were being punished for speaking out about the abuses they had suffered.
“It is simply wrong and points to serious problems in Thailand’s defamation laws,” Ms Vartiala said.
Workers from Myanmar, which borders Thailand, make up the majority of millions of migrant workers in the country, employed in fishing fleets, factories and farms.