Electronics company sues human rights defender for $3.3 million.

Japanese-owned electronics company Asahi Kosei sues Malaysian human rights defender for $3.3 million. The trial is scheduled to start on 27 June 2011. At stake the labour rights of migrant workers and the freedom of opinion and expression of human rights defenders. Join the GoodElectronics Network and other human rights organisations in their calls for action and justice.

Electronics company sues human rights defender for $3.3 million.

Human rights defender Charles Hector Fernandez is facing trial on 28-29 June 2011 for allegedly defaming Japanese-owned electronics company Asahi Kosei (M) Shd. Bhd in Selangor, Malaysia.

Charles Hector blogged about the treatment of 31 Burmese migrant workers, who, working at Asahi Kosei, complained they were being paid significantly less than agreed upon. When seeking compensation they were threatened with deportation and termination of their employment.

Despite outcries by human rights organisations, trade unions, labour rights networks, etc., and international media attention for this case, Asahi Kosei is heading for a direct confrontation in court, with an outrageous compensation claim.

Asahi Kosei manufactures hard disk drives, video equipment and automobile parts. Electronics brands, car brands and other customers of Asahi Kosei have failed to do the right thing - that is ensuring that labour standards are upheld throughout their supply chain. Fine-sounding policies regarding responsible supply chain management have proven to be just hollow words. None of Asahi Kosei’s customers has dared to take position in favour of the labour rights of migrant workers and freedom of opinion and expression.

Well-known brands sourcing from Asahi Kosei are Hitachi, Sony, Peugeot, Renault, Ford, Chrysler, and Volkswagen. Another major buyer is Calsonic Kansei, a Japanese automotive parts manufacturer.


The trial starts tomorrow – Join us today in our appeals for action and justice



Background

 

Charles Hector is a well-known human rights defender and lawyer who has represented workers and migrants for many years. He is a former member of the Malaysian bar council. Charles Hector advocates for labour reform and details abuses of workers on his blog.
Tomorrow, 28 June 2011, Charles Hector is to stand trial for alleged defamation of electronics company Asahi Kosei which is suing him for the compensation of $ 3.3 million following comments posted by Charles Hector concerning the breach of agreement by the company with 31 Burmese migrant workers. The workers claim they were being paid significantly less than what was originally agreed with their employer, and were not allowed sick leave when needed. When they complained about this breach of contract and sought compensation they were threatened with deportation and untimely termination of their employment.

Charles Hector's blog posts were based on information gathered by interviewing the concerned 31 migrant workers. Two days before posting the information online, Charles Hector emailed his allegations to Asahi Kosei - seeking a response but received no reply. The company claims Hector's emails went to an account that was rarely used. Asahi Kosei filed a lawsuit six days later.
Two of the 31 Burmese workers were actually taken to the airport under false pretence despite having valid work permits and contracts. It appeared they were to be deported  but they managed escape at the very last moment. Subsequently, Thiha Soe and Aung San went in hiding.

Asahi Kosei claims that 26 out of these 31 workers are now back working at the factory with extended work permits. The remaining five, however, including Thiha Soe and Aung San and two others who lodged complaints against Asahi Kosei at the Malaysian Human Rights Commission and at the Labour Department, are in a way outlawed. If their permits expire or are cancelled, these migrant workers will become undocumented, or what the government calls ‘illegal migrants’, and they can at any time be arrested, detained, charged, convicted, sentenced (even whipped) and/or deported.


Asahi Kosei’s responsibility for its workers
Asahi Kosei's claims assert that Hector mischaracterized the work relationship of the migrant workers who were not the company's responsibility because they were supplied by an outside firm and not placed on the company's direct payroll. Charles Hector, and numerous labour rights experts and activists with him, maintain that Asahi Kosei should indeed be regarded the migrant workers’ ‘actual employer’ as they are directly under the company’s control and doing work for them during working hours. The company must be responsible for all the workers working in their factory.


Migrant workers are not heard
Migrant worker rights have long been a concern in Malaysia, also points out Human Rights Watch.    Migrant workers frequently receive low wages, suffer from dirty and dangerous working conditions, and are prohibited from changing employers. Employers frequently seize migrant workers' passports, limiting their freedom of movement. Many migrant workers pay exorbitant recruitment fees to labour brokers in their home country and in Malaysia, making them effectively debt-bonded until they can pay back the fees. Malaysian Ministry of Home Affairs regulations prohibit migrant workers from forming associations and unions. A migrant worker who becomes undocumented faces arrest as an "illegal migrant" - male migrants found to be illegal are subject to caning, which is a form of torture.

The 31 Burmese migrant workers about whose cases Charles Hector blogged applied to join as a party to the suit. The Court refused. Subsequently, the Court’s decision was appealed. The Court of Appeal has not ruled yet, while the trial against Charles Hector is to start on 28 June. The concerned 31 workers still risk deportation. Being added as parties to the suit would protect these workers against possible deportation. Five workers are willing to testify about the working conditions at Asahi Kosei. Not being joined as party to the suit means a real risk of losing their work visas, and consequently facing possible arrest, detention and deportation to Burma.


Unfair  trial?
11 April 2011, the Court in Malaysia has released a decision which claims that there is no truth in the blog posts which Charles Hector has posted, and that there is no basis provided for the comments made. The Court further drew a distinction between freedom of expression in the printed press and information posted on the internet, claiming that comments by the human rights defender must be verified, and further stating that a blog is not an appropriate forum to deal with this particular issue. The Court stated that the defendant was not in a position to demand information from the company nor to provide them with a deadline to respond to his requests.
The Dublin-based International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Frontline believes issuing such a statement, prior to the commencement of the full defamation hearing, is a gross infringement on the defendant's right to a fair trial.

Frontline is urging the Malaysian authorities to ensure that the trial of human rights defender Charles Hector Fernandez conforms to international fair trial standards. Frontline calls for guarantees that in all circumstances human rights defenders in Malaysia are able to carry out their human rights activities without fear of reprisals and free of all restrictions including judicial harassment.

Moreover, Charles Hector’s defence may be highly prejudiced if the Burmese migrant workers are not joined as a party to the suit. They are the actual victims and the primary source of information – not having then heard will jeopardise Charles Hector’s chance to get a fair trial.


International support
Labour rights groups from all over the world have expressed their concerns over Asahi Kosei’s treatment of the Burmese workers and the aggressive legal action against Charles Hector. Click here for the  public statement that was signed by more than 80 organisations.

Don’t go after whistle-blowers
On March 11, the Malaysian Bar issued a statement supporting Charles Hector. Citing the Whistle Blowers Protection Act 2010, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act 1999, and other laws, the bar stated that, "It is felt that it is best that the company does not continue to go after the ‘whistle blower’ but rather to commence the necessary investigations and do the needful to ensure that all rights of workers that work in the company are not violated, and justice is upheld”. Click here for the full statement.

Human rights defenders suppressed
The Asian Human Rights Commission see the space for human rights defenders who are actively raising concerns for human rights violations on migrant workers threatened. The libel lawsuit on Mr. Charles Hector  Fernandez not only threatens free speech, but suppresses human rights defenders from exposing the plight of migrant workers. In Malaysia, violations of human and labour rights of migrant workers by employers and the authorities mostly go unreported.

Fear public debate is impeded
Renowned international rights organisation Human Rights Watch is concerned that the defamation lawsuit against Charles Hector is chilling the debate on matters of public interest in Malaysia. On February 17, Asahi Kosei obtained an injunction that prevents Charles Hector from blogging about the company's treatment of migrant workers until the end of the trial, which could take many years. Moreover, "The astronomical sums being demanded by Asahi Kosei threaten both to bankrupt the defendant and to intimidate labour and human rights defenders all over Malaysia," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "A company's right to protect its reputation should not become a way to cut off important discussions of matters of public concern."
http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2011/06/22/malaysia-lawsuit-against-rights-defender-impedes-public-debate

Supply chain responsibility - customers Asahi Kosei to take action
It is extremely difficult to establish relations between Asahi Kosei and its customers. Information on supplier relation is scarce and hard to find. In the Asahi Kosei corporate website customers are listed, but it is unclear how up-to-date this list is. Nevertheless, some links between Asahi Kosei were established.

The GoodElectronics Network has called upon with Asahi Kosei to refrain from legal action toward human rights defenders and opt for dialogue about the labour dispute.  Moreover, GoodElectronics, makeITfair as well as other labour rights groups have written to brands known to be sourcing or to have sourced from Asahi Kosei to use their leverage over Asahi Kosei to stop the legal proceedings against Charles Hector, including Philips, Seagate and Toshiba, HP, Nidec, Calsonic, Dell. Philips and Seagate responded, with  - unsubstantiated - claims that they are not or no longer sourcing from Asahi Kosei. Other buyers did not respond.

GoodElectronics has set up an urgent appeal specifically targeting Hitachi as a major and well-known buyer of Asahi Kosei. On its website Hitachi emphatically presents its corporate social responsibility vision, speaking of “the building of a prosperous and vibrant society”, of “disclosing information openly and transparently in order to maintain and develop a relationship of trust with its various stakeholders, and acting responsibly towards them through various means of communication”, and about “undertaking business based on the principles of fairness and sincerity, acting with the utmost respect for human rights and pursuing a high sense of corporate ethics in the global business market which encompasses diverse cultures, morals, ethics, and legal systems”. Moreover, Hitachi is member of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) and has a responsibility to live up to the EICC code of conduct. More than 1,900 people wrote to Hitachi, but Hitachi did not respond.

Aliran has been publishing regular updates on the case. Aliran has also established the Charles Hector Legal Defence Fund.

Vetements Propres/makeITfair has issued an urgent appeal, referring to the GoodElectronics letter to Hitachi. .

French NGO Peuples Solidaires is supporting the GoodElectronics urgent appeal and has written to Renault and Peugeot.

Change.org set up a petition calling upon Big companies have a responsibility to ensure that workers making their products aren't being stripped of their basic human rights. As such we call upon companies including Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, Volkswagen, Hitachi, Sony, and Toshiba to use their leverage as customers to stop a series of human rights violations by Asahi Kosei, a Japanese manufacturing company in Malaysia. 1605 people signed this petition so far. Chrysler has been in contact with change.org to say that no Asahi Kosei parts are currently used in their vehicles. Other addressees did not respond.

The Clean Clothes Campaign has issued an urgent appeal to its, referring to the change.org petition.



International political attention
The European Union has been attentively following the legal proceedings so far. Representatives of the Belgium and Danish embassies in Malaysia, also appearing for the European Union, have been present at hearings.


Support Charles Hector today