November 25, 2015

Why More Sustainable Palm Oil could mean More Human Rights Violations

Why More Sustainable Palm Oil could mean More Human Rights Violations

A certification for sustainability hasn't stopped palm oil producers from abusing migrant workers. Photo Credit: Craig Morey via Flickr

The Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) has recently been celebrating a predicted rise in demand for sustainable palm oil.  According to a Credit Suisse report, “palm should gradually improve its image and see the benefits of a trend toward more ‘natural’ oils. We expect it to grow by 10% on a per-capita basis.”  This growth is expected to occur between now and 2030, and focus on sustainable palm oil.

An October article from MPOC member Dr Kalyana Sundram proudly reports that the Malaysian palm oil industry is well-positioned to satisfy this demand with certified-sustainable palm oil.  More plantations are being certified, research is being carried out to increase yield-per-hectare rather than log more forests, and “more environmentally sound management practices have appeared throughout the palm supply chain.”

On the surface this sounds like a good thing, but increased demand for sustainable palm oil may well mean increased demand for borderline slave labor on Malaysian oil palm plantations.

An explosive July article in The Wall Street Journal discovered that Felda – a certified-sustainable palm oil company and one of Malaysia’s biggest oil producers – relies on migrant labor and horrific employee abuse to run its operations.  In Malaysia, palm oil plantation workers are mainly migrants from poorer neighboring countries such as the Philippines, Nepal, Bangladesh and Indonesia.  These migrants are abused, forced to work crippling hours, their passports often taken and their families extorted for ransom from overseas.  The workers can do little about their predicament, as they are often illegal residents of Malaysia.

The organization handing out sustainable certifications to companies like Felda is called the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).  Simply put, RSPO has little ability to track, let alone control, human rights violations in its certified companies.

“…the RSPO recognizes problems still exist within its grower community and it can be difficult to verify how workers ended up in plantations,” reads a recent article in the Guardian.

Malaysia and neighboring Indonesia employ as many as 3.5 million workers to run their oil palm plantations.  Undoubtedly, many of them are abused and made into debt-laden slaves.

While Malaysia celebrates its ability to supply sustainable palm oil, the human cost of the industry is being overlooked.  Pressure must be put on RSPO and the Malaysian government to increase their labor standards, report on employee treatment, and refuse to certify palm oil producers that are perpetuating a cycle of modern day slavery.

5 Comments so far

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  1. Robert Hii

    Just out of curiosity, seeing that you’re based in Malaysia. Has anyone even studied the phenomenon of migrant workers in Malaysia? I read reports of labour abuse now and then but cannot understand why so many migrant workers continue to flock to Malaysian plantations in search of work.

    1. Hi Robert, thanks for your comment!

      So far, there has been some investigation and media coverage of migrant workers and worker abuse in Malaysia – but not nearly enough. As far as why migrants keep coming to Malaysia, it has to do with the sheer availability of work in Malaysia (a job is basically guaranteed), and wide-ranging recruiting systems that funnel the migrant workers on which Malaysia depends into the country.

      The palm oil industry caught a lot of flak recently from The Guardian for its dependency on migrant labor:

      We also wrote a piece touching on the severity and prevalence of worker abuse in Malaysia:

      Best Regards,

      Brandon Taylor
      Editor in Chief | Clean Malaysia

      1. Robert Hii

        Thanks for the reply Brandon. I read a local report last year about a plantation owner in Sarawak that was clearly abusing migrant workers desperate to make a living outside of their own countries. It made me wonder if conditions are really so bad in places like Bangladesh that labourers would take a chance. Is it possible that the pittance they make in Malaysia is somehow an improvement over their lives there? Would be interesting to hear from returning migrant workers as to why they continue to return despite the news on labour abuse

        1. Hi Robert,

          I did some research, and the answer is that most migrant laborers in Malaysia are either fleeing religious persecution / extreme poverty or are promised reasonable wages by what turn out to be human traffickers and con men paid to bring in the millions of laborers on which Malaysia’s economy depends.

          There are an estimated 6 million migrant workers in Malaysia (2.9 million legal, the rest illegal) making up 20% of the country’s entire workforce. They make up 50% of the construction industry and 60% of the manufacturing industry. Altogether, foreign labor contributes about 10-11% to the national economy!

          Shocking stories of worker abuse periodically make headlines, but the vast majority of what’s going on in Malaysia’s migrant labor scene is unknown and undocumented.

          An article in the New York Times reflected on the fact that unlike migrant laborers of generations past, the migrants of today often don’t assimilate into the local culture, don’t settle down, and often aim to go back home after they earn enough money to survive. It was migrant labor that created Malaysia’s rich cultural heritage and diverse communities (of mainly Malay, Chinese and Indian origins), but this assimilation – a hallmark of most developed countries – simply isn’t happening for laborers these days.

          It would be in Malaysia’s best interest to try and allow migrant workers to assimilate so they can eventually contribute more positively to economy and culture, but the general outlook seems to be that Malaysia already has too many problems to think about solving those of migrant workers or refugees. It’s a bit of a catch-22 at present: odds are that if Malaysian governments made efforts to support migrant workers, the workers would then assimilate and help the country solve some of its longer-standing problems (and supported migrant workers wouldn’t as often end up in slums that draw on public resources like food, electricity and water without paying taxes on those resources).


          Brandon Taylor
          Editor in Chief | Clean Malaysia

          NY Times article:

          Most other facts + figures:

          1. Robert Hii

            Thanks for that Brandon!
            I didn’t know there was that many migrant workers.I’ve seen weak responses from the industry to foreign media accusations.Maybe they should consider having yourself do a comprehensive study on the legal workers to find out more.

            One of the accusations was the holding of passports, which made sense to me as you don’t want a migrant workers coming in on a plantation work visa and ending up taking better jobs in a different industry.

            As for assimilation, I saw a public outcry on social media against plans to bring in Bangladeshis out of fear that these could become political pawns. No clear solutions I guess but it would be interesting if a detailed study was made on the legal workers

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