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KUALA LUMPUR — A group of migrant workers from Burma will fight a landmark case in Thailand after they were charged in court on Wednesday with criminal defamation for accusing a chicken farm that supplies the European Union of mistreatment and labour abuses.
The case was triggered by a complaint the 14 workers filed to Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission in 2016. They said they were forced to work overtime, unlawful deductions were made from their salaries and passports confiscated.
The Thammakaset farm, in Lopburi in central Thailand, denied the charges from the outset and launched the lawsuit against the workers, saying their complaint has damaged its reputation.
The owner refused further comment on Wednesday unless his five paragraph statement was printed in full and unedited, which runs contrary to the standard Thomson Reuters Foundation reporting practice.
The workers’ lawyer Nakhon Chompuchat said this was the first time migrant workers have faced criminal defamation charges in Thailand, which could see them jailed for up to two years if found guilty.
“They are not guilty and they will fight this in court,” Nakhon told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Bangkok.
“They just want to protect themselves and their rights. They merely asked the National Human Rights Commission to investigate their complaint, that was their intention,” he added.
The workers pleaded not guilty in court on Wednesday and were granted bail pending the start of the trial next February.
Thailand has been at the centre of a slew of slavery and human trafficking cases, including in its seafood sector, with migrants from Burma suffering the worst exploitation.
In the face of mounting scrutiny of supply chains, Thailand — Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy — has strengthened laws to crack down on labour exploitation, but activists said the practice is still widespread.
The Thammakaset farm workers claimed they clocked 20 hours a day for 40 days straight during intensive chick-rearing periods, sleeping in hammocks next to the warehouses where the flock lived.
They earned $7 a day, though the legal daily minimum wage for eight-hour days is $8.60, with one day off per week.
The farm owner has denied any wrongdoings and argued the staff voluntarily worked nights to rack up bonuses and chose to sleep next to the chicken warehouse.