Suthasinee Kaewleklai, coordinator for Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN) in Thailand, recently was honored for her work by the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT).
Suthasinee Kaewleklai, MWRN coordinator, recently was honored for her work by the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT). Credit: Solidarity Center/Robert Pajkovski
“Migrant workers are among the most vulnerable and abused workers in every country,” says Kaewleklai. “Worker rights are human rights, and migrant workers are entitled to fundamental rights without discrimination, including the freedom of association and collective bargaining. We will fight shoulder to shoulder with our sisters and brothers.”
Kaewleklai received the award during an NHRCT seminar last week, held in conjunction with International Women’s Day to honor women human rights defenders. The nonprofit MWRN, a Solidarity Center partner, has provided a crucial bridge between workers and access to legal redress for unpaid wages, occupational injuries and other forms of workplace abuse since it was founded in 2009.
“Whether they are protecting rights in the judicial process, fighting against impunity for rights violations, protecting democratic freedoms and the rights of communities and migrant workers, or fighting for freedom of expression, equality and the reduction of gender biases, their courageous stories are models and inspirations for future generations to learn and remember,” Angkana Neelapaijit, National Human Rights commissioner, said during the award ceremony.
Risking Physical, Verbal Assaults to Support Workers
Kaewleklai, a long-time trade unionist, began championing worker rights in the 1990s, when she worked at a factory in the Rangsit district, north of Bangkok. A co-founder of the factory’s union, she and other workers successfully challenged their employer’s refusal to regularly pay wages, and she successfully took legal action after the employer fired her and other union activists.
She later worked as coordinator for the Thai Labor Solidarity Committee, another Solidarity Center partner, and has championed the issues of working women, successfully campaigning to make International Women’s Day a national holiday.
At the MWRN, Kaewleklai advocates for the rights of migrant workers to form unions, negotiate with their employers for better working conditions, and urging lawmakers to ratify International Labor Organization standards on freedom of association and collective bargaining. She has helped migrant workers on chicken farms and elsewhere recover unpaid wages and attain safe working conditions.
She repeatedly has been verbally threatened, physically attacked and put under surveillance by state and non-state actors for her work to protect and promote labor rights and the rights of migrant workers. Currently, Kaewleklai, along with 14 migrant workers and other human rights defenders, is challenging criminal and civil charges filed by the poultry company, Thammakaset Company, following her advocacy on behalf of the company’s underpaid migrant workers.
Despite rulings by authorities and the courts against Thammakaset—including a January Supreme Court decision upholding a lower court ruling ordering Thammakaset to pay $53,600 to 14 former migrant workers for violations of the Labor Protection Act—the company continues to pursue charges against Kaewleklai and the others. Human rights defenders believe the charges are part of a strategy to harass human rights defenders and migrant worker rights advocates.
Farmworker rights advocates, policymakers and agricultural workers from Mexico, Morocco, Tunisia and the United States are set to share strategies to build worker power, create decent work in the fields and demand greater justice across global food chains in Los Angeles October 11.
The conference, “Realizing a More Fair Global Food Supply Chain,” will explore farmworker organizing strategies, alliances to support worker rights across the food chain, legal initiatives to ensure decent work and the importance of workers in the advancement of sustainability and justice as our food moves from farm to table.
Abelina Ramirez Ruiz, Secretary of Gender Equality, National Independent and Democratic Union of Farmworkers (SINDJA, Mexico)
Moderator: Gaspar Rivera-Saldago, UCLA Labor Center
11:00 a.m. – 11:15 a.m. Coffee break
11:15 a.m.– 1:00 p.m. Strategy Session Worker rights and sustainable food advocates will examine models of cooperation and strategies to strengthen agricultural workers through alliances across the food chain.
• Joann Lo, Co-Director, Food Chain Workers Alliance (Los Angeles, CA) • Clare Fox, Executive Director, Los Angeles Food Policy Council • Ryan Zinn, Regenerative Projects Manager, Dr. Bronner’s
Moderator: Robert Egger, President, LA Kitchen
1:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m. Lunch (catered, on location)
1:30 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. Strategy Session Panelists will offer a global perspective on legal initiatives and strategies to support decent work and rights for workers in agriculture.
• Sami Tahri, Member-Executive Office, UGTT (Tunisian labor federation) • Adrienne DerVartanian, Director of Immigration and Labor Rights, Farmworker Justice (Washington, DC)
Moderator: Jeff Vogt, Director, Rule of Law, Solidarity Center
3:00 p.m.–3:15 p.m. Break
3:15 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. Closing: What’s next? Participants will explore the future of workers building power and voice in sustainable food chains while ensuring fairness and sustainability in agriculture supply chains.
• Sarah Gammage, Director of Gender, Economic Empowerment and Livelihoods, International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) • Azusena Favela, Director of Programs and Operations, Leadership for Urban Renewal Network (LURN) • Rusty Hicks, President, Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO • Lorenzo Rodríguez Jiménez, General Secretary, National Independent and Democratic Union of Farmworkers (SINDJA, Mexico)
Moderator: Shawna Bader-Blau, Solidarity Center
6:00 p.m.– 8:00 p.m. Reception: UFCW Local 770, 630 Shatto Place, Los Angeles, CA 90005 RSVP to: email@example.com
Fourteen workers who left the farm in 2016 described forced overtime, unlawful salary deductions, confiscation of passports and restrictions on freedom of movement in a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand.
In retaliation against the workers for submitting the complaint, the Thammakaset Co. Ltd. filed a criminal defamation complaint against the 14 workers, alleging they falsified claims to damage its business interests.
The case put a spotlight on abuse in the supply chain, says Solidarity Center Asia Regional Director Tim Ryan. The ruling “strikes a blow against the criminalization of promoting labor rights,” and is a landmark for migrant worker rights and freedom of expression.
“Companies filing criminal defamation complaints against workers who seek justice on the job is an all-too common practice, one often used as justification for dismissal. This decision is in line with international legal standards supporting free speech, freedom of assembly and other activities key to an open civil society.”
Workers Increasingly Migrate for Jobs
One of the migrant workers says he worked 22-hour shifts for more than four years at the Thammakaset 2 Poultry farm, which supplies one of Thailand’s largest chicken export companies. Myint told the Guardian that each day, he would kill up to 500 birds for food processing. At night, he and his co-workers say they slept on the floor in a room with up to 28,000 chickens, swatting away insects. If a bird got sick, they were to blame.
A team of United Nations human rights experts this year called on Thailand to “end recurring attacks, harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders, union leaders and community representatives who speak out against business-related human rights abuse.”
Referring to the Thammakaset case, they said “business enterprises have a responsibility to avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts; therefore it is a worrying trend to see businesses file cases against human rights defenders for engaging in legitimate activities.”
Thammakaset also filed a criminal complaint against two of the 14 workers and a Migrant Worker Rights Network coordinator for the alleged “theft” of time cards, taken by the workers to show labor officials evidence of their claims about a 20-hour working day. MWRN, a Solidarity Center partner, is a membership-based organization for migrant workers from Myanmar working in Thailand.
A Solidarity Center video that shows how unions are key to reversing the dynamic that fuels low wages and unsafe workplaces in the global supply chain won the top award in the Social Responsibility category of the 2017 Telly Awards. The Telly Awards honor the best in TV and cable, digital and streaming, and non-broadcast productions.
Produced by Next Day Animations, the short “white board” video explains that by using collective power to counter the interconnected effects of global supply chains, government inaction, poverty and economic inequality, workers “improve their workplaces, their wages, their families’ living conditions—and they use that power to improve their communities and build democracy.”
In a statement, Next Day Animations says “we are thrilled by this honor and grateful for our awesome partner organizations who helped make it happen.”
A new Solidarity Center video makes it easy to understand how global supply chains, government inaction, poverty and economic inequality are connected—while highlighting how unions are key to reversing the dynamic that fuels low wages and unsafe workplaces.
In the short, “white board” video, the narrator explains that by using collective power, workers “improve their workplaces, their wages, their families’ living conditions—and they use that power to improve their communities and build democracy.
“In strong democracies, working people hold their governments accountable so more people have better jobs and the dignity everyone deserves.”
The bottom line: “Together we can create better jobs, stronger communities!”
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