posted by Laurel Sutherlin

notes.JPGPetaling Jaya, Malaysia – RAN just finished hosting an inspiring and humbling two-day Palm Oil Labor Principles Workshop outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The intensive discussions involved dozens of representatives from international environmental and labor NGOs alongside labor unions, worker advocacy and human rights organizations from across Indonesia and Malaysia.  

The purpose of the workshop was to build consensus for a widely agreed upon standard for fair labor principles in the palm oil sector. 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 towards eliminating systemic abuses currently rife throughout the palm oil industry. 

Participants shared heart-wrenching stories of severe health impacts from being forced to apply highly toxic chemical pesticides like paraquat, without proper protective equipment or training, especially among women. Workers spoke of widespread practices that include misleading and unethical labor recruitment, long grueling hours, unreasonable quotas, low wages, sub-standard housing conditions and a lack of access to basic necessities like clean drinking water, healthcare and education for children.

The workshop occurred in advance of the annual meeting of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), taking place November 17-20 in Malaysia. The US has recently downgraded Malaysia to the lowest ranking in its annual human trafficking report, relegating the Southeast Asian nation to the same category as Zimbabwe, North Korea and Saudi Arabia.

Over the past 18 months, there has been a proliferation of no-deforestation, no-peat, no-exploitation commitments from major corporations in the palm oil industry, such as Wilmar and Cargill. However, egregious labor conditions continue to be exposed, even on RSPO certified plantations.

Recent findings by the NGO Finnwatch shows RSPO member IOI Group to be paying wages below the minimum wage, seizing workers’ passports and preventing workers from joining unions.  Other reports in the past year have found human trafficking, child labor and debt bondage of laborers employed by RSPO members and working on RSPO certified operations.  


“As more and more major players in the palm oil industry grapple with implementation of their recent no- deforestation, no-peat, no-exploitation commitments, it is imperative that labor voices are included as critical stakeholders in the process,” said Robin Averbeck, senior forest campaigner with Rainforest Action Network. “Millions of workers across Indonesia and Malaysia continue to suffer under brutal and unacceptable conditions on palm oil plantations and it is past time the industry takes responsibility to address this systemic crisis.”

In less than two decades, palm oil production has nearly quadrupled to 55 million metric tons to become 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 laborers on plantations. This has resulted in widespread exploitation of workers and a reliance on forced and child labor. 

Despite serious exploitation of workers, global controversy surrounding palm oil production to date has largely focused on the commodity’s 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. 

The palm oil industry is one of the most significant employers in Malaysia and Indonesia, where 85 percent of the world’s palm oil is grown, employing more than 3.5 million workers. Many of the workers on palm oil plantations are recruited from far distances, often with unethical and misleading practices, from the most vulnerable and marginalized populations, such as migrant workers or Indigenous communities, and have little or no access to political recourse.

At last years RSPO, over 3,000 protestors peacefully marched through the streets of Medan, North Sumatra and surrounded the site of the RSPO Roundtable meetings with a loud and colorful rally bringing attention to this pervasive but often overlooked issue.

Due partially to Malaysia’s repressive political atmosphere, no such public protests are expected at this year’s RSPO gathering, but labor voices are gaining strength and RAN will continue to work to bring this urgent issue into the public eye and onto the agenda of the companies that traffic Conflict Palm Oil.

Participating organizations in the Palm Oil Labor Principles Workshop included:

  • Rainforest Action Network (RAN)
  • Pesticide Action Network Asia & the Pacific (PANAP)
  • Tenaganita
  • Oppuk
  • Sawit Watch
  • Grassroots
  • Verite
  • International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF)
  • International Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR)
  • Solidarity Center
  • Walk Free
  • With support provided by Humanity United