While the world’s growing palm oil industry has long been (justifiably) the target of environmental NGOs for its role in land grabs and rainforest destruction, too often activists have overlooked another of its dirty secrets: the palm oil industry’s reliance on risky employment practices that place migrant workers and day laborers at risk of wage theft, child labor, and even forms of modern day slavery.
Over the past few years, ILRF, Indonesian NGO Sawit Watch, Rainforest Action Network, Finn Watch and others have released a steady stream of reports documenting abusive labor practices on Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil plantations certified as “sustainable” by the palm industry’s own certification scheme.
Seeking to challenge the palm oil industry’s dismal record on labor rights, a diverse coalition of organizations – including NGOs and trade unions from Indonesia, Malaysia, Liberia, Europe and the United States -- released a new guide, titled Free and Fair Labor in Palm Oil Production: Principles and Implementation Guidance.
Drawing on the International Labour Organization’s core conventions, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and other sources of international law and best practice, the Principles break new ground by identifying concrete steps responsible palm oil growers must take to eliminate the labor rights abuses that are all too common on palm oil plantations, including:
- Respect fundamental worker rights, including freedom of association, collective bargaining, and the right to strike;
- Practice ethical recruitment by not charging workers fees for a job or seizing their passports or identity documents;
- Eliminate drivers of child labor, including unrealistically high harvesting quotas that require workers to bring their children to work;
- Practice responsible employment by hiring workers directly on regular, written contracts and limiting the use of day laborers and subcontractors to non-core plantation work that is temporary or seasonal in nature;
- Ensure workers’ right to occupational health and safety by banning hazardous pesticides and providing them with adequate protective equipment free of cost;
- Commit to reasonable working hours and progress toward payment of a living wage;
- Establish a legitimate, accessible, and transparent grievance mechanisms, consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights; and
- Commit to meaningful transparency and disclosure of workforce data and plantation processes.
The Principles are meant to serve as a resource for workers, unions, human rights advocates, responsible palm oil growers, and consumer-facing companies seeking to ensure that their supply chains are free from forced labor and other serious labor rights abuses.
They also represent a new benchmark for responsible palm oil production, filling in gaps and other weaknesses in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s (RSPO) current labor standards.
Now comes the hard part: putting the Principles into practice so that the palm industry generates decent jobs that respect workers’ fundamental rights. Stay tuned as we continue to transform the debate over “sustainable” palm oil with worker-centered solutions.