NGOs meet to discuss worker exploitation on oil palm plantations

Worker exploitation and human rights abuses in the palm oil industry were the focus of a special workshop held in Kuala Lumpur this week.

Trades union and human rights organisations from Malaysia and Indonesia convened with NGO representatives ahead of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) annual meeting, which has just begun in the Malaysian capital.

The aim of the second Palm Oil Labour Principles Workshop was to build consensus on a set of standards for palm oil companies, industry certifiers, and government regulators.

“When complete, this detailed set of standards will be delivered as a set of recommendations to help guide companies, plantation certification bodies, and government regulators to eliminate the systemic abuses currently rife throughout the palm oil industry,” said Laurel Sutherlin from the US-based Rainforest Action Network (RAN).

Sutherlin says there is broad agreement on the principles being drawn up, but there will be further rounds of consultation before the set of standards will be officially released.

“The core set of issues shared among the groups is clear, as is the basic thrust of the recommendations that will be made to companies for implementation of their policies.”

The key issues being addressed in the discussions were the following:

• elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour;
• abolition of the worst forms of child labour;
• freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining;
• the provision of free and adequate protective equipment;
• the provision of adequate housing, water, medical, educational, and welfare amenities;
• the need for a ban on toxic, bio-accumulative pesticides;
• workers’ rights to reasonable working hours and a living wage;
• ethical recruitment, with no fees for workers or seizure of identity documents;
• the establishment of a legitimate, accessible, and transparent grievance mechanism that is consistent with international best practices; and
• meaningful transparency and disclosure of all plantation processes.

In less than two decades, palm oil production has nearly quadrupled to 55 million tonnes and palm oil is now the world’s most widely traded and used edible vegetable oil.

“As global demand for palm oil has skyrocketed, so has the need for large numbers of labourers on plantations,” RAN said. “This has resulted in widespread exploitation of workers and a reliance on forced and child labour.”

RAN says the global controversy surrounding palm oil production has largely focused on its links to deforestation and climate change. “Unlike many other globally traded commodities that have received civil society attention, such as coffee, cotton or farmed shrimp, palm oil supply chains are often more complex and far less transparent.”

Eighty-five percent of the world’s oil palm is grown in Malaysia and Indonesia, and the industry in those two countries employs at least 3.5 million workers.

“Many of the workers on palm oil plantations are recruited – often by the use of unethical and misleading practices – from the most vulnerable and marginalized populations, such as migrant workers or indigenous communities, and they have little or no access to political recourse,” Laurel Sutherlin said.

“A lack of documentation of labour conditions, as well as the geographic isolation of many plantations, further enables the exploitation of workers and exacerbates the vulnerabilities of already marginalized populations.”

During last year’s RSPO meeting, more than 3,000 protesters marched through the streets of Medan, North Sumatra, and held a rally to highlight worker exploitation and human rights abuses. They delivered a set of demands to the RSPO.

RAN points to the recent findings of a study by the Finnish business watchdog Finnwatch, which showed that the IOI group, which is an RSPO member, has been paying workers below the minimum wage, seizing their passports and preventing them from joining trades unions.

“Other reports in the past year have found human trafficking, child labour and debt bondage of labourers employed by RSPO members and working for RSPO-certified operations.”

Senior forest campaigner with RAN, Robin Averbeck, says that, as more and more major players in the palm oil industry grapple with implementing their no-deforestation, no-exploitation commitments, it is imperative that labour voices are included as critical stakeholders in the process. “Companies have to do the hard work necessary to eliminate the pervasive labour abuses in their palm oil supply chains.”

The plantation labour organiser and executive director of the Indonesian labour organisation Oppuk, Herwin Nasution, said that he had witnessed the exploitation and unfair treatment of palm oil labourers for many years. “I look forward to these principles being implemented by oil palm companies throughout their supply chains in order to improve the lives of plantation labourers who have been abused too often by the state and their employers.”

The executive director of the Indonesian organisation Sawit Watch, Jefri Saragih, said: “Millions of workers across Indonesia and Malaysia continue to suffer under brutal and unacceptable conditions on palm oil plantations and the principles we are drawing up will go further than any standards that currently exist to address these problems.”

Other organisations that were represented at the workshop include the Pesticide Action Network Asia & the Pacific (PANAP), the Malaysian NGO Tenaganita, which works to promote and protect the rights of women workers, the fair labour organisation Verité, the International Labour Rights Forum (ILRF), and the International Center on Corporate Responsibility.

Useful links:

ILRF report

Finnwatch report

RAN report

Verite report

Verite report

Humanity United report