Today marks one year since I felt I had to leave from Thailand after almost 12 years of working with migrant worker issues there.
It is an emotional anniversary for me. I had to leave behind a year ago in Thailand many friends, work colleagues, a country I had essentially grown from a young adult to an older adult in, a culture and language I was coming more to understand and integrate into, and I had to leave behind most importantly the MWRN team that consisted of both my closest colleagues but also those whom I classify as both my friends and family.
As I said in my statement on leaving last year: ‘Importantly on a personal level, currently the situation in defending migrant worker rights for me and others who act as human rights defenders in similar situations has rapidly deteriorated in Thailand with significantly increased risks and aggressiveness evident. As a result, I want to ensure time for existing tense situations of conflict to reduce as well as provide time and space for the many parties to these existing disputes to fully understand the importance of migrant worker rights and the necessity for human rights defenders like myself to have their work increasingly promoted and protected. Only if such a positive situation is developed can people like myself work genuinely and most productively, free from threats and intimidation and without endless prosecutions that prevent our work from proceeding effectively.’
Of course, in my personal situation in the Natural Fruit dispute and indeed for many more human rights defenders in Thailand and also for the 14 Thammakaset migrant workers, a more positive situation has not developed in the past year. I have posted about this on numerous occasions so no need to outline these negative developments again here.
During the past year however, many innovative and forward looking socially aware companies both in Thailand and within the EU have taken positive steps to stand up for me and the 14 workers, as part of their supply chain responsibility work. This support has been most appreciated and is exciting as a development for me too. ETI and some of its UK members, BSCI and its European members, Axfood, S Group, a number of European and Thai poultry exporters and importers, as well as leaders in Thailand’s seafood industry such as the TTIA and Thai Union have undertaken commendable work to support us. During my final years in Thailand, I increasingly worked positively and constructively with all these private sector actors. I personally have worked hard alongside these companies in the past year to seek to find a means of reconciliation or compromise/negotiation both in the Natural Fruit and Thammakaset cases that involved personal concessions on my side.
Thailand’s Government has in many ways also taken many positive steps in the past year, alongside domestic industry and overseas buyers, to start to address systematic exploitation of migrant workers that I have personally for over a decade highlighted strongly with more commitment and more systematically. Too often a chaotic short term migration policy continues to exist however in Thailand, as does unethical migrant recruitment that too often leads to forced labour.
The latest process of migrant regularisation, issuing Certificate of Identity (CI) and Nationality Verification (NV) documents remains tainted by widespread corruption and an inefficient Thai bureaucracy is challenged to respond. Recruitment of migrants, despite the commitments of overseas buyers, domestic employers and even the ILO/UN’s programme of work, remains too exploitative and extortionate. The rule of law in this area of migration management in Thailand remains relatively weak, and much still needs to be done by the private sector.
But I stress again that positive steps have clearly been taken towards improvement across the board in Thailand here, and particularly concerning poultry/seafood and labour inspections/migration policy developments that should be recognised and praised. In the context of increasing interest in business and human rights in Thailand, hopefully these improvements will continue more strongly into the future.
The EU and its member states as well as MEPs have continued to pay positive attention to the above mentioned situation, sending frequent observers to the various trial of mine and the 14 workers, and engaging me and MWRN on many occasions. OHCHR have also been very active and observed trials too.
During the past year, I have continued to engage Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, NHRCT and Thai government officials both in Brussels where I am currently based, as well as in London, Geneva and via conference call in Bangkok. I have sought to find a means to support the 14 workers in the Thammakaset case and to bring about a situation that avoids their criminal trial. I have also done much inner soul searching during a year of relative rest since my departure for Thailand. This has been a challenging year for me on a personal level too. Indeed, it has been a year of much change and self reflection.
As a result, I have made it clear to the Thai Government on numerous occasions that I too have a responsibility to accept how some of the ways that I have worked in the past have, despite a positive intention and some positive results for migrants, been at times unproductive, non-constructive and inappropriate. I have drafted reconciliation texts, and requested the MFA and other Thai agencies to support me in an attempt at reconciliation particularly with Thammakaset and Natural Fruit. As part of this goal, working with UK/EU retailers, I recently wrote a letter to Thammakaset Farm also. I am trying to do what I can to neutralise or reduce strong negative feelings that my actions have created.
Whilst it would surely take time, there have been no positive signs communicated to me as yet regarding this personal attempt at reconciliation or dispute settlement. Previous attempts to bring about a meeting between all parties to the Thammakaset dispute, without lawyers, ended acrimoniously and seemed to galvanise even negative developments. I was advised against further reconciliation attempts earlier in 2017 as the time didn’t seem right.
With this in mind, and given I will attend on invitation of the UN OHCHR the UN Global Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva from 27-30 Nov 2017, I last week made another attempt to reach out to the Thai Government and the NHRCT to request to meet them in person to discuss this reconciliation attempt on the sidelines to the conference. I still hope to get a positive response to this meeting request.
On this final reconciliation issue, and bearing in mind the ongoing Natural Fruit and Thammakaset dispute criminal/civil cases that continue with much time, expense, bad energy and effort to spiral negatively, I hope, one year on from my leaving Thailand, that I continue to gain important support in ways that could help to bring about positive developments and reconciliation.
It was increasingly my hope during the past year that the disputes and controversies that meant I had to leave Thailand could be overcome in a way that is positive for Thailand, Thailand’s export industry, Natural Fruit Company Ltd, Thammakaset, Betagro and myself. Governments, industry (both Thai and overseas) and a human rights defender come together perhaps finally to put behind us a chapter of negative energy and conflict that has however, on a positive note, perhaps contribute to what we see where conditions of migrant workers in Thailand improve in many areas.
Perhaps this is a naive overly optimistic dream of a single individual actor who has sown himself many deep seeds of conflict and caused much loss of face during almost 12 years of committed work on migrant rights in Thailand, a country that I called my home for so long. But that is where I am, one year since I left Thailand.