Palm oil industry confronts its human rights problem

In the last decade, consumers across North America and Europe have become increasingly aware of the environmental costs of producing palm oil, now the world’s most widely consumed vegetable oil. The industry’s social problems, however, have remained largely in the dark.

Judging from the dialogue at the European conference of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)—which requires its members to adhere to a set of sustainability and social standards—held earlier this week in London, that may be about to change.

Speakers recounted a litany of abuses suffered by oil palm workers, even at companies that are RSPO members. Laborers, including expectant mothers, faced exposure to pesticides without protective gear and lacked contractual work arrangements. Child labor has also been documented.

In a keynote, Dame Frances Cairncross, a former environmental editor at The Economist and current Chair of the Court for Heriot-Watt University, noted that 2017 marked the first time the group had featured social issues on its agenda.

Cairncross told the 400-plus delegates from around the world that while the “golden crop” has driven economic development across Indonesia and Malaysia, both countries (which between them produce more than 80 percent of the global supply) have suffered massive deforestation and loss of biodiversity. With demand for the commodity expected to quadruple by 2050, palm oil interests are now expanding across Africa and Latin America. As the industry propels explosively forward, it will be important to right environmental and social wrongs along the way, she said.

Appearing on a panel addressing human rights on palm oil plantations, Seema Joshi, head of business and human rights at Amnesty International, thanked “many of the NGOs in the room” for ensuring that environmental concerns had received coverage and begun to be addressed in recent years. “It’s time for the labor issues,” she said, “to get the attention they need.”

Joshi was among the researchers behind “The Great Palm Oil Scandal,” a report published by Amnesty in November that found prominent RSPO member Wilmar International—the largest palm oil–trading company in the world, based in Singapore—to be guilty of numerous abuses, including forced and child labor, on its supplier plantations. “Companies have great policies,” Joshi said, “but it’s clear that they’re not being implemented.” Many of the abuses she and her colleagues documented targeted women. The United Nations Guiding Principles, adopted in 2011, apply to all businesses, she said. “And those who have suffered have a right to remedy.”

Subajini Jayasekaran, child rights and business manager at the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, said female workers and their families were suffering at the hands of the industry. Women work under informal arrangements with no contractual guarantees, and are routinely exposed to dangerous chemicals such as paraquat, despite a lack of protective gear. Mothers may be forced to wake at 4 a.m. and feed their children before traveling for as long as two hours to reach a plantation. Returning in the evening, they might have to choose between using their limited water supply to rinse off the chemicals or to cook for their families. Maternity protections are limited or nonexistent, as are childcare and breastfeeding provisions, healthcare, and educational opportunities for their children.

The conference marked the launch of a partnership between UNICEF and the RSPO to promote the rights of children and working families in the industry and to raise awareness about child rights among RSPO members.

David Pendlington, who oversees sustainable sourcing for U.S. candy behemoth Mars, said that his company had begun working with the nonprofit Verité to determine where there might be labor issues in its supply chain and how the company might go about addressing them. (Mars for decades has faced labor issues in its cacao supply chain.)

In mapping out a way forward, keynoter Cairncross compared the NGO campaigns surrounding the palm oil industry to those related to sustainable fishing, animal welfare, and GMOs. Consumer pressure has a role to play in influencing action by industry, she said. But measures such as eco-labeling work only for “a minority of wealthier customers willing to pay a premium.”

The fact remains that just 21 percent of the global palm oil supply is currently certified by the RSPO, and only a tiny percentage of consumer goods bear the organization’s logo. The real test, Cairncross said, will lie with China and India, by far the largest importers of the commodity. In neither of those countries are environmental and labor issues high priorities among consumers. Cairncross expects that increasing urbanization and education will change that, but just how fast it happens is anybody’s guess.

A current fellow with the Alicia Patterson Foundation, Jocelyn Zuckerman is working on a book about palm oil. She last wrote about a string of assassinations of activists opposed to palm oil for FERN and The New Yorker.