|Private label pineapple juice products on sale in Finland. Photo: Finnwatch|
Natural Fruit, one of Thailand’s largest pineapple processors, has sued Andy Hall, a British researcher, over a report that he worked on for Finnwatch* on labor abuses in the industry. Hall faces some seven years in jail and $10 million in fines.
The report: “Cheap Has A High Price” was published by Finnwatch in January 2013. It examined the sourcing practices of the biggest private label products sold by Finnish retail chains such as Ruokakesko, SOK, Suomen Lähikauppa as well as Lidl, which is based in Germany.
“Cheap Has A High Price” took a hard look at both the tuna and pineapple industries which employ many workers from among the estimated two million Burmese migrants in Thailand. Many of them do not have authorization to work, making them vulnerable to exploitation. To determine the facts, Finnwatch contracted Hall, who lives in the region and speaks fluent Burmese and Thai.
One of the examples that Hall researched for the report was a pineapple processing factory owned by Natural Fruit in Prachuap Kiri Khan province in central Thailand that he visited in November 2011. Hall found that some 700 out of the 800 factory workers were Burmese laborers who were paid some 200 baht a day (about $6.25) – less than the minimum daily wage of 240 baht ($7.50). The workers were also required to buy their uniforms and even their identity cards from the company. The Finnwatch report also found that workers at the Natural Fruit factory were often forced to work over time and some were seriously injured by factory machines.
After Hall gave an interview to Al Jazeera television, Natural Fruit filed charges against him in a Bangkok police station last July under the 2006 Computer-Related Offences Commission Act which has been used to shut down websites critical of the government.
"The report caused damage to me and my company. Any accusations were not true,” Wirat Piyapornpaiboon, the owner of Natural Fruit, told Agence France Press news agency. “If true, why are there so many workers who want to work at my factory?"
But Hall and Finnwatch defend the report. “I’m not going to back down because I’ve done nothing wrong. What I did was in the public interest for the benefit of migrants, and that’s what I’ve been doing for 10 years,” Hall told the Guardian. “If they’re not willing to drop the cases, I am certain they, the pineapple industry, the Thai export industry and the Thai economy will suffer more.”
Hall has become a cause celebre - with some 300,000 people signing a petition calling for him to be let go. Somewhat surprisingly, Hall has also attracted support from some sectors of industry. For example United Nordic, a Scandinavian food and domestic goods buyer; published a letter suggesting that the court case was a serious mistake: "We are greatly worried and concerned... [Industry should] actively promote engagement of constructive dialogue with organisations and civil society, as opposed to taking legal action,” the company wrote. The letter was signed by representatives from Axfood Sverige (Sweden), Dagrofa (Denmark), Martin & Servera (Sweden), Norgesgruppen/Unil AS (Norway), and Tuko Logistics Coop (Finland).
The Thai Frozen Foods Association and the Thai Tuna Industry Association have gone even further – the two groups paid Hall's bail when he was first charged.
Earlier this month, Hall attended the first court hearings. Finnwatch activists said that they proceedings were deeply flawed. “The judge previously suggested the court required migrant workers from Natural Fruit actually interviewed by Hall to give evidence in the case to prove Hall’s innocence,” says Sonja Vartiala, executive director of Finnwatch. “Ethically and practically protecting such witnesses is a huge challenge.”
A final verdict is expected towards the end of this year.
* Finnwatch is not affiliated with CorpWatch