Calls for Labor Reform Dominate Annual Palm Oil Sustainability Meeting

posted by Laurel Sutherlin
RAN and Allies Bring Labor Issues Front and Center for the Palm Oil Industry

The issues faced by the roughly 3.5 million workers in the palm oil industry were front and center at the 14th annual meeting of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the leading certification body of the palm oil, which wrapped this past week in Bangkok, Thailand. In a sharp departure from years past, when labor issues were left off the official agenda and thousands of labor solidarity protesters rallied outside in the rain to have their voices heard, this year’s Roundtable seemed in comparison to be dominated by calls for fundamental labor reform. Still, nearly all parties agree that acknowledging the issue is one thing, while taking concrete steps to solve the enduring crisis remains an unfulfilled ambition.

At the event’s opening ceremony, the RSPO’s keynote speaker, celebrated investigative journalist Noy Thrupkaew, issued a stark warning to the palm oil industry. She stressed that noncompliance with internationally accepted labor standards threatens the entire sector with serious reputational and economic risk, as consumers become more aware of the scale of the problem and legal challenges are almost certain to increase.

Whether or not the RSPO will strengthen and enforce its own standards remains to be seen. Recently, Rainforest Action Network (RAN), Indonesian labor organization OPPUK and International Labor Rights Forum havefiled a formal complaint with the RSPO grievance mechanism seeking the suspension of palm oil giant Indofood over its well-documented pattern of labor abuses (see both the NGO report and a separate RSPO audit team assessment). RAN, OPPUK and ILRF, along with others including palm oil plantation laborers further brought labor rights issues to the forefront of the conference by hosting an official side event that was packed to capacity with industry leaders, retail brands, media and civil society.

“The RSPO’s credibility is on the line as it faces a key test. Will it suspend rogue members that engage in well-documented human rights abuses or continue to certify them as providers of ‘sustainable’ palm oil?” said Gemma Tillack, Agribusiness Campaign Director with Rainforest Action Network (RAN). “A certification system is meaningless without strong auditing, enforcement and grievance mechanisms. The RSPO must strengthen its standard and systems to identify and remedy the violations rife amongst many of its members, starting with Indofood.”

A broad cross section, including dozens of regional and international civil society organizations, have endorsed and called for the implementation of the Free and Fair Labor Principles for Palm Oil Production to be utilized as an industry norm to prevent the widespread abuses now taking place. For a full list of recommended indicators, developed by the Palm Oil Innovation Group, to be incorporated into a strengthened standard, see

Herwin Nasution from Oppuk, a non-profit organization established in Medan, Indonesia, to improve working and living conditions for palm oil workers in North Sumatra and across Indonesia, added:

“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.”

Joseph Paul Maliamauv of the Malaysian human rights organization Tenaganita said:

“The persistent occurrence of human rights violations in companies that have been certified by RSPO points to fundamental weaknesses in the certification scheme. Unless these weaknesses are diligently addressed without delay, there is real danger that the RSPO will fall into disrepute as a vehicle for bringing about real social change. In the ultimate analysis, it is important to bear in mind that the RSPO certification scheme should serve to humanize the work environment. Labor should not be regarded merely as a factor of production, but instead as the contribution of human beings whose rights and dignity are respected.”