Key gaps in labor standards and enforcement leave palm oil workers vulnerable to exploitation
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - At the opening of the annual meeting of the palm oil industry certification system, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), in Kuala Lumpur, a group of international, Malaysian and Indonesian environmental and labor rights organizations are calling on the RSPO to fix significant gaps in its monitoring and enforcement of labor standards.
Following the documentation of forced labor and human trafficking on several RSPO member plantations, including Malaysian palm oil giant FELDA as reported recently in the Wall Street Journal, the coalition of civil society groups call out the RSPO and its proposed scheme, RSPO Next, as half measures. Neither the RSPO or RSPO Next go far enough to ensure sufficient oversight of fair labor practices, including independent auditing, nor do they enact necessary consequences to members found in violation of the RSPO Principles and Criteria (P&C).
The civil society groups call on the RSPO to align its standards and operational guidelines for members with the Free and Fair Labor in Palm Oil Production: Principles and Implementation Guidance document that was developed by a forum of experts and key stakeholders and based on the International Labor Organization’s core conventions and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
“The RSPO standard needs to be brought in line with the Free and Fair Labor Principles, which should be seen as an extension of the P&C and not as a competitor to it. The Fair Labor Principles can provide a bottom-up approach to ensuring that RSPO members uphold fair labor rights for their workers. Once the standard is improved, there needs to be independent auditing of members, and those found not in compliance with the improved standard should have their membership and certification revoked, so that they can’t continue to sell supposedly sustainable RSPO certified palm oil to the market,” said Herwin Nasution from Oppuk, a non-profit organization established in Medan, Indonesia, to improve labor working and living conditions in North Sumatra and across Indonesia.
The coalition highlighted a number of serious issues, including forced and child labor, human trafficking, wage theft, discrimination against women and minorities, and health and safety violations, including the use of highly hazardous pesticides, on RSPO member plantations. These issues are allowed to persist in part due to poorly trained auditors, difficulty of accessing complaints mechanisms and a tendency to reward companies for company-created unions rather than creating space for genuine worker organizing.
“Plantation managers have an enormous amount of influence in the RSPO audit process. The auditors tell management in advance when they are coming and managers tell workers what to say, so what is happening on the plantations is not getting to the RSPO. What is needed is a truly independent audit process with well-trained auditors qualified to assess labor conditions. These auditors should improve the superficial checklist currently in use, randomly select workers without management interference, and allow workers access to audit results,” said Manggalam Panjasaram from Tenaganita, a Malaysian-based nonprofit that works to promote and protect the rights of women and migrant palm oil laborers.
"Simply put, the RSPO does not protect workers,” said Robin Averbeck, Senior Campaigner at Rainforest Action Network (RAN). “Despite ongoing violations and findings of noncompliance, a RSPO member has never lost its certification over labor issues. RSPO certification provides no assurances that massive labor rights violations are not taking place on plantations.”
“The RSPO is deceiving customers and consumers by claiming its palm oil is ethically produced, when that is so clearly not the reality on the ground,” said Eric Gottwald, Legal and Policy Director at the International Labor Rights Forum, a Washington DC-based non-profit organization dedicated to promoting labor rights around the world. “The RSPO does more harm than good when it ignores fundamental human rights violations rather than forcing members to improve working conditions. To maintain a legitimate voice, RSPO needs to immediately reassess its approach to rampant labor violations in the palm sector.”