Coalition of NGOs calls on the RSPO, Malaysian government and international buyers for an open investigation into The Wall Street Journal’s findings
On the heels of a major investigative article from The Wall Street Journal exposing serious human rights and labour abuses in Malaysian grower Felda Global Venture’s plantations, a coalition of civil society groups is calling on the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) for an open investigation into the abuses. Conditions including human trafficking, forced labour, and withholding of wages were documented, all of which are violations of the RSPO’s Principles and Criteria, as well as basic human rights.
“Malaysia’s palm oil industry is heavily dependent upon the labour of migrant workers, and time and time again, these workers fall prey to serious exploitation at the hands of their employers or recruitment agencies,” said Glorene Das, Executive Director of Tenaganita, a Malaysian NGO that campaigns for the rights of migrant workers, labourers and women. “The findings found on Felda Global Venture’s plantations must be investigated by the RSPO, as well as the Malaysian government, and immediate action taken,” Das said.
Felda operates over 700,000 hectares of palm oil plantations throughout Indonesia and Malaysia. The company joined the RSPO in 2004 and over 300,000 hectares of its palm oil plantations are RSPO certified. It’s unclear if the plantations visited by the The Wall Street Journal are RSPO certified, but the RSPO does not allow major non-compliances with its Principles and Criteria even on uncertified plantations. Unless immediately remedied, the violations documented by The Wall Street Journal should result in the RSPO revoking the certification of all of Felda’s operations and suspending Felda’s RSPO membership.
“We are calling on the RSPO to openly investigate The Wall Street Journal’s findings,” said Sonja Vartiala, Executive Director of Finnwatch, a Finnish NGO that focuses on global corporate responsibility. “If the open investigation confirms the findings of the WSJ, the RSPO must uphold its own Principles and Criteria and suspend Felda’s membership until these very serious violations are proven to be remedied,” she said.
International buyers named in the article include Cargill, Procter & Gamble, and Cargill customer Nestlé. Many other major buyers are purchasing from Felda directly and numerous others indirectly.
“It is imperative that all international buyers, including Cargill, Procter & Gamble and Nestlé, as well as those unnamed, act immediately to remedy labour violations in their supply chains. If Felda does not remedy all labour violations in a transparent manner, buyers must publicly sever all financial ties with the company,” said Robin Averbeck, Senior Campaigner at Rainforest Action Network.
Malaysia has well-documented, severe problems with the abuse of migrant workers, including widespread forced labour and human trafficking. In 2014, the U.S. State Department’s Annual Trafficking in Persons report gave Malaysia the lowest possible rating, meaning the Malaysian government “does not fully comply with the minimum standards (to end human trafficking) and is not making significant efforts to do so.” Despite the State Department’s recent controversial decision to upgrade Malaysia to the Tier 2 Watch List, there is wide agreement among trafficking experts that abuses continue unabated and the government has failed to take meaningful steps towards addressing its severe trafficking problem.
This is not the first time a prominent RSPO palm oil grower has been in the spotlight for serious labour and human rights abuses on its plantations. In 2014, Finnwatch released a report finding serious labour rights violations in RSPO certified estates in Malaysia. The U.S. Department of Labour has highlighted the widespread use of forced labour in the Malaysian palm oil industry since 2010 in its List of Goods Produced with Child Labour or Forced Labour.
In March of 2015, a coalition of human rights, workers, and environmental organisations and unions from Indonesia, Malaysia, Liberia, North America and Europe released the Free and Fair Labour in Palm Oil Production: Principles and Implementation Guidance. The guide is the first of its kind and details comprehensive recommendations to implement fair labour practices in the palm oil sector.