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.