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Burmese migrant workers go on trial for accusing Thai chicken farm of abuse

A man looks at roast chickens for sale at a shopping mall in Bangkok, Thailand, on 6 February 2016. (Photo: Reuters)

Migrant workers from Burma who accused a Thai chicken farm of a litany of abuses went on trial for defamation on Wednesday in a landmark case between workers and an employer.

The Bangkok court case was triggered by a complaint that 14 workers filed to Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission in 2016 about forced overtime, being paid under the minimum wage, confiscation of passports, and limited freedom of movement.

Their former employer, Thammakaset farm, which supplies meat to 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 workers were charged in October in a first-of-its-kind criminal defamation case that prompted campaigners to urge better protection for migrant labourers in Thailand if they complained about their working conditions.

The farm owner has denied any wrongdoing, and said the staff voluntarily worked nights to rack up bonuses and chose to sleep next to the chicken warehouse.

On Wednesday, 13 of the 14 workers were present in court. One was exempt as she had recently given birth, said Nakhon Chompuchat, a lawyer for the workers.

“Today, witnesses for the prosecution were presented. The workers will have a chance to speak tomorrow and the day after, confirming the details of their complaint,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation over the phone.

The trial will end on Friday with a ruling expected next month, he said.

Nakhon said this was the first time migrant workers had faced criminal defamation charges in Thailand, which could see them jailed for up to two years if found guilty.

“Today was only the first day of the trial. It is too early to say anything,” Thammakaset owner Chanchai Pheamphon told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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 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 the practice is still widespread.