Hall heads for Paris but fight for rights goes on
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Hall heads for Paris but fight for rights goes on

Labour activist has left Thailand after 11 years, but wants work to continue

Parade for change: Andy Hall participates in an International Migrant Day 2014 march in Mahachai, alongside the Migrant Worker Rights Network team.
Parade for change: Andy Hall participates in an International Migrant Day 2014 march in Mahachai, alongside the Migrant Worker Rights Network team.

When British migrant rights activist Andy Hall left Thailand last Monday after 11 years, he was facing three criminal and civil courts lawsuits. They followed a report he helped research information which accused companies of labour and human rights violations in the pineapple and tuna processing industries in Thailand.

Arriving in Paris didn't quite calm his nerves.

"I'm so alert at this particular time. I still feel that something bad is going to happen," he said. "It's a hard feeling to describe, but even now I wake up in the morning and I feel so tense. I'm concerned about who's going to prosecute me today."

His concerns were justified when he learned from media reports on arrival in Paris that Thammakaset Farm, a former Betagro poultry supplier, had launched further legal action against him for criminal defamation and computer crimes.

Mr Hall believes more prosecutions are on the way, as 14 chicken farm workers from Myanmar at the centre of his latest prosecution have been prosecuted for criminal defamation for complaining to the Office of the National Human Rights Commission. They have also been charged with multiple counts of theft of their time cards, evidence the workers brought to law enforcement officials to show 20 hour work days.

Mr Hall was born in Spalding, a small town in England, to a working class family. His father was a gardener after being forced to take early retirement, and his mother worked in a newspaper shop.

He was the first in his family to attend university, graduating with a first class honours degree in law from University College London.

His dreams of becoming a wealthy lawyer changed when he started a short relationship with a young man who was from a slum community in East London, and was involved with drugs and from a broken family.

"He taught me a lot about real poverty, and made me want to help impoverished communities instead of becoming a very rich lawyer," said Mr Hall, 37.

After working in Oxford for a year doing research on the link between criminal offending and drug use, Mr Hall received scholarships from the Australian and British governments to do a PhD on developments in corporate social responsibility for workplace deaths and industrial disasters in Australia, Canada and the UK.

In June 2005, he took leave from his PhD and academic teaching, and went to Thailand initially to stay with a Thai university friend, travel and meditate at some temples. He found himself in Chiang Mai and came across Shan construction workers who were disabled and maimed from their jobs but couldn't get access to compensation.

His first exposure to the media was with former Bangkok Post reporter Erika Fry, who worked closely with Mr Hall on several stories.

"I used to wake up early on Sunday morning when the link [of the articles] would come out. I was so excited," he said.

One of Fry's stories was about police repression of Shan migrant workers and how they were extorted for using motorbikes. Eventually after a lot of campaigning, they were able to get licences and ride motorbikes without paying a bribe.

Within a year, Mr Hall founded and directed the Migrant Justice Programme under the Human Rights and Development Foundation, where he started working more closely with Thai trade unions and started advocating with the government.

Most of his focus in the early years was on strategic litigation against the government for discrimination against migrant workers, which required involvement in many court cases.

"Lawyers were very busy and always got facts wrong and misunderstood things," said Mr Hall, prompting him to take a six-week Thai-language class at the AUA Language Centre so he could read and correct the prosecution documents submitted to court.

From 2009, Mr Hall advised and assisted the Migrant Worker Rights Network, which has offices in Samut Sakhon, Yangon and Hat Yai. The network has 16 staff and three advisers, mostly Myanmar. Their main funder is the Finnish Foreign Affairs Ministry, through the civil rights group Finnwatch.

Mr Hall started gaining a higher profile in the media when he organised for Aung San Suu Kyi to visit his office in Samut Sakhon's Mahachai district in 2012.

"My more meaningful relationship with the media really started from that time," he said. "One of my disappointments, however, is it's hard to get media committed to the kind of stuff we're doing."

It was only when Mr Hall started using the media for his advocacy that his work on migration and human rights started to link to international markets, consumers and international companies.

In 2013, Finnwatch published a report researched by Mr Hall titled "Cheap Has a High Price", which detailed alleged rights violations of workers at Natural Fruit Co Ltd, a large exporter of canned pineapple and juice based in Prachuap Khiri Khan.

The report had a positive impact to stimulate change but also created a lot of tension, and Mr Hall left from his position as a migration expert at Mahidol University to Myanmar to be an adviser to the government on migration.

Natural Fruit filed a lawsuit against Mr Hall weeks after the report was launched, and on Sept 20 this year, the Bangkok South Criminal Court sentenced Mr Hall to three years in prison and fined him 150,000 baht for defamation and computer crimes.

Mr Hall never thought about leaving the country in the past. But recently his feelings changed. The situation felt more tense after he started campaigning against migrant conditions in Thailand's poultry industry. So after the Supreme Court rejected the attorney-general and Natural Fruit's appeal in a criminal defamation case two weeks ago, it was the last thing binding him to the country.

"The system in Thailand -- too often the law and policies breach international standards and undermine the fundamental rule of law. Enough is enough. I was part of this system for 11 years, but now it's not productive to be part of it," said Mr Hall.

"It comes to a stage now where I feel like I don't want to be caught in the system of repression and corruption as it strengthens. I can do the same work I do outside Thailand, it's easier and I think will be more beneficial."

Despite the strained relationship he had with the private sector over the past years, Mr Hall managed to engage food processing associations in piecemeal projects since 2013 and then start a project this year with Thai Union Group PCL, the world's largest canned tuna producer.

"We wanted to work more with the whole seafood industry, but they weren't willing to come on board and adhere to these advanced international standards as easily," said Mr Hall.

Thai Union this year implemented a zero recruitment service fee project, where workers can come in from overseas free of charge without being subject to repressive recruitment fees. Mr Hall says TU is the only company in Thailand that he's aware of that pays fees to recruit workers on behalf of the workers themselves.

Mr Hall called the partnership with TU, which employs almost 30,000 migrant workers, "very controversial" to many who are concerned at human rights activists' ability to work with profit-making giants.

"The reason why we work with them now is because we have always been fighting with them," said Mr Hall. "We used to condemn them over and over again for trafficking, slavery and child labour, but now we can make the change more productively together."

Mr Hall hopes to return to Thailand, but he doesn't have any expectations.

"Thailand is a country where the capacity to streamline or integrate human rights concerns into policy and practice is still incredibly low, so I can see the results of my work very easily," he said.

Two weeks ago, he met an adviser to the deputy prime minister to talk about the Betagro chicken case he has been involved in recently.

"He said he would find a way to solve this problem, but I will not take these people at their word now," Mr Hall said.

"I'll wait and see from outside the country, with a hope still in my heart that I can return to do the work I love so much to do."

Within rights: British labour rights activist Andy Hall faced a defamation lawsuit by fruit processing giant Natural Fruit Co over his report on labour abuse in the Thai food industry.

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