In the 1980s McDonalds began a libel case against two activists who were criticising its behavior on a range of issues. The case, known as McLibel, became such a public relations disaster for the company that it is now taught in public relations courses as an example of how companies shouldn't behave.
Wirat Piyapornpaiboon has obviously never heard of this case. He is Chairman of Natural Fruit, a pineapple processing company in Thailand, and he is currently making the same mistake as McDonalds, suing an activist. In the process he is drawing much more attention to labour abuses in his factory than the activist ever managed to do.
Andy Hall is a migration researcher who defends the rights of migrants in Thailand, including
migrants from Burma. He documented exploitation of migrant workers at a factory owned by Wirat Piyapornpaiboon's Natural Fruit company. Instead of taking action to end human rights violations against his workers, he is taking legal action against Andy Hall. He is suing him on a range of charges, including defamation, saying that he was "broadcasting false statements to public media'" and also demanding damages. If convicted, Andy Hall could be imprisoned for seven or more years and fined more than £6.6m (around $10m).
Andy Hall managed a team of researchers producing a report on labour conditions for migrant
workers in factories in Thailand. The report, 'Cheap Has A High Price', was published by the Finnish organisation Finnwatch, on 21st January 2013. The report exposed human rights abuses at a Natural Fruit company factory in Thailand which processes pineapple products. The vast majority of the workers are migrants from Burma. The abuses include workers being hit by security staff and managers, dangerous working conditions with heatstroke and fainting common due to high temperatures, and electric shocks and other injuries, compulsory overtime, illegally low wages, unfair deductions and charges from salaries, seizure of passports and ID papers and which are not returned on request and child labour.
There are an estimated 2-4 million migrant workers in Thailand, mostly from Burma, Laos and Cambodia. Around 80% of all migrants in Thailand are thought to be from Burma. Migrants typically work in industries with harsh or difficult working conditions, such as fishing boats, factories, agricultural and construction work. Many also work as domestic labour. Abuses against migrant workers are rife in all these industries, and unregistered migrants are also subject to additional threats, extortion and exploitation.
When faced with the truth about what was taking place in his factory, Wirat Piyapornpaiboon could have turned negative publicity into a positive. He could have said he was appalled that such things could happen in his factory, was taking action to investigate and rectify the situation, and made a selling point of high labour standards to his international corporate customers. His reputation would have been enhanced, and his business would likely win more international customers, meaning profits would increase.
Instead, Wirat Piyapornpaiboon decided to shoot the messenger, and in the process shot himself in the foot, repeatedly. If Wirat Piyapornpaiboon wants to take legal action against the person genuinely doing damage to his reputation, he should sue himself. As President of the Thai Pineapple Industry Association, Wirat Piyapornpaiboon is not only damaging himself, he is also damaging the reputation of the whole industry. By taking legal action against Andy Hall, the impression is given of the industry trying to bully, intimidate and silence someone who has exposed their bad behavior.
With several separate cases now taken out against Andy Hall, trials will be starting and ending regularly for many months. Each time they do, there is more international attention, more damage to the reputation of Wirat Piyapornpaiboon, all self-inflicted.
This week alone a judgement is expected in one of the cases against Andy Hall, while another trial will begin. Protests will also be held at Thai embassies in several countries around the world, demanding all charges be dropped.
Wirat Piyapornpaiboon may think that these legal cases are to defend his reputation, but he needs to understand that the opposite is the case. It is these cases that are causing his reputation damage, not the report Andy Hall helped research. If Wirat Piyapornpaiboon somehow wins any of these cases, he will be the loser. The publicity about these cases is bad enough now. If he succeeds in his attempt to send Andy Hall to jail, the global protests and negative international media attention will dwarf the attention so far.
The McLibel trial was described as the biggest corporate PR disaster in history. McDonalds realises that now, and doesn't want to talk about the case, saying only, "times have changed and so has McDonald's."
Wirat Piyapornpaiboon is making the same mistake as McDonalds, but it isn't too late to change yet. He might find dropping the cases now to be personally embarrassing, but even if he wins the cases in a Thai court, he will lose in the court of public opinion, in the media, and in the business world. Any good businessman knows when the time has come to cut your losses and move on. For Wirat Piyapornpaiboon, that time is now.