Thai court case that’s redefining corporate-activist relationships

The case of an activist being supported by a Finnish company testifying against a former supplier in Thailand shows how the progressive business landscape is changing

Relationships between companies and campaigners have evolved over the last few years. Still often adversaries, multinationals and NGOs now also work together towards common sustainability goals.

Now, a case in Thailand has arguably taken the idea of collaboration to a new level. Could it mark a move towards cooperation where companies and campaigners watch each other’s backs, as well as work towards mutual goals?

The Thai case concerns Andy Hall, a human rights campaigner who carried out some field research on behalf of Finnish corporate responsibility watchdog Finnwatch. The resulting Finnwatch report found human rights violations on the part of Natural Fruit Co, a Thai company that supplies a number of Finnish retailers.

So far, so straightforward: a case of abuses uncovered in the supply chain that the western brands involved pledged to put right. The Finnwatch report also looked at two Thai tuna processing companies where serious violations were found.

But while the tuna companies provided full responses to the report, refuting some allegations and promising to check or make changes in respect of others, Natural Fruit decided to go after Hall, who lives in Thailand. It filed criminal defamation charges against him in 2013, with the threat of several years’ jail time. The resulting case has dragged on ever since.

Telling testimony

Hall has defended himself vigorously and has received much support, including from some Thai companies – such as Thai Union, and the Thai Tuna Industry Association – that paid for his bail.

He has also been backed up by Finland’s S Group, a cooperative retailer that sourced from Natural Fruit. Although the Finnwatch report was a potential corporate embarrassment, S Group’s senior vice president for sourcing, Jari Simolin, testified in Thailand in defence of Hall. In other words, Simolin was prepared to speak up against his former supplier.

Hall is confident the case against him will ultimately be dismissed. The final hearing of witnesses took place on 27th July and verdict will be given on 20th September. Unsurprisingly, for companies that source from Thailand, Hall counsels caution. Many Thai companies understand the need to maintain human rights and to behave ethically, he says. But there are others, especially smaller companies, that “work in the past,” that might be linked to organised crime or to powerful officials, and that don’t like to be told that their standards are not up to scratch.

It appears that such companies would rather employ legal or other threats to shut down critics, rather than reform their operations.

A new line?

Meanwhile, S Group’s direct support for Hall, and the company’s willingness to step into the fray, seems to redefine the notion of adversarial relationships between companies and campaigners. It draws a line instead between progressive, pro-rights forces on one side – whether companies, their suppliers and campaigners – and on the other side, non-progressive companies, and those they work with, that refuse to change.

There have been cases before of brands supporting workers in difficult situations, such as when Adidas in 2014 called for the release of labour rights activists in southern China. Brand partnerships might also provide a degree of protection to labour rights activists working in countries where those rights are not commonly recognised.

Unique case 

The S Group/Hall case does go further. “I don’t remember a case like this,” in which a company has intervened to provide part of the defence in a legal case against a campaigner, says Lea Rankinen, S Group’s senior vice president for corporate responsibility. S Group had a “big internal discussion” before it decided to step in, she adds.

Kate Larsen, director, Business for the Unseen, points out that the fact Hall is from outside Thailand has had an impact on how events have played out. “Whilst brands such as Adidas have spoken up to governments for the release of arrested labour activists before, this case has received more high profile attention as the activist is a foreigner who became involved in Thai politics around slavery.”

Corporate guts

Travelling around the world to give court testimony as S Group has done is something new, says Phil Bloomer, executive director, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre. “We are seeing a rapid rise in intimidation and attacks on human rights defenders in too many countries. S Group has shown leadership and courage: it takes guts to be honest about abuse in your own supply chain, even more to defend the activist that exposed it.”

Rankinen says that S Group does its own supply chain diligence, but the Finnwatch report provided valuable further information that could be used to identify weaknesses in the value chain. In other words, just as Finnwatch alerted S Group, so S Group felt it should step in when Hall was threatened. For other companies, “I hope that this could be an example,” Rankinen says.

Featured event: (where we will be debating this case, with Andy Hall and others)

How business can better manage human rights risks

What does ethical trade, modern slavery and forced labour mean for managers and boards?

24th-25th October 2016, London

With: John Lewis Partnership, Marks and Spencer, Total S.A., Thai Union, IKEA, Oxfam, Leigh Day, Anglo American, The Rezidor Hotel Group, S Group, Hilton Worldwide, Sime Darby, Anti-Slavery International, Nestlé S.A., Whitbread, and many others. Agenda here.

Our forthcoming events