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A court in Bangkok on Wednesday dismissed criminal defamation charges against workers from Burma who had accused a chicken farm of abuses, in a landmark ruling seen as a rare victory for migrant workers’ rights in Thailand.
The case was triggered by a complaint that 14 workers filed to Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in 2016 about forced overtime, being paid under the minimum wage, confiscation of passports, and limited freedom of movement.
The workers were charged in October in a first-of-its-kind criminal defamation case, which prompted campaigners to urge better protection for migrant labourers who complain about working conditions.
On Wednesday, a judge said he believed that the workers filed the NHRC complaint against the Thammakaset chicken farm in “good faith,” and without false information.
“This is a very good verdict for all migrant workers in the country,” said Nakhon Chompuchat, a lawyer for the defendants.
“It says workers need not be afraid to speak up against violations by their employers. The workers are very happy,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
If convicted, the workers faced up to one year in prison and fines.
Their former employer, Thammakaset farm, which supplied the Thai food conglomerate Betagro, denied the charges from the outset and launched a lawsuit against the workers, saying the complaint has damaged its reputation.
Betagro, which sells to companies around the globe, later said it had cut ties with the farm.
The farm owner has denied any wrongdoing, and said that employees voluntarily worked nights to rack up bonuses and chose to sleep next to the chicken warehouse.
On Wednesday, the owner said he could not immediately comment on the verdict and did not answer subsequent phone calls.
Thailand has been at the centre of a slew of slavery and human trafficking cases, including in its seafood sector, with migrants from Burma thought to suffer much of the worst exploitation, according to rights groups.
In the face of mounting global scrutiny of supply chains, Thailand has strengthened laws to crack down on labour exploitation, but activists say it is still widespread.
Wednesday’s verdict will help bolster the rights of migrant workers in the country, said Sutharee Wannasiri at the advocacy group Fortify Rights.
“The Thai court today sent a strong message to businesses that the authorities guarantee the right of alleged human rights victims to submit complaints … without fear of retaliation,” she said.
“Migrant workers’ contributions are vital to Thailand’s economic development. It is important that the Thai government adopts policies that protect their rights,” she said in a statement.
Earlier this year, the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights said that Thai businesses must act to prevent rights violations, and the government must better protect migrant workers.
The verdict should encourage companies “to work collaboratively with critical voices and address legitimate grievances of migrant workers,” said Surya Deva of City University of Hong Kong who participated in the UN group.