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Palm Oil Action Australia | November 23, 2017

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Vulnerable and exploited: 7 things we learned about migrant labour in palm oil

  • On July 26, 2016

theguardian.com
Vulnerable and exploited: 7 things we learned about migrant labour in palm oil
Hannah Gould

Palm oil makes its way from the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia (and increasingly Africa and Latin America) into 50% of what we buy, from toothpaste to margarine. Linked to deforestation, habitat loss, fires and the displacement of communities, the production of palm oil has raised major concerns to date.

The palm oil industry is also a huge user of migrant labour, which bring problems of exploitation and discrimination. Here’s what we learned in a recent expert live chat on palm oil and migration.
1. Palm oil is a popular industry for migrants

The environmental impact of palm oil is in the spotlight but the workers who endure exploitation in the name of our cakes and cosmetics are largely ignored

Oil palm plantations in south-east Asia have tripled in just a decade, employing around 3.5 million workers in Malaysia and Indonesia alone. Malaysian nationals are generally not willing to work in the plantations’ harsh conditions for the low wages offered, meaning work is almost always available in the country’s growing industry. This makes it an attractive destination for people coming to gthe region seeking a living, and for labour intermediaries looking to profit from connecting workers to jobs.
2. Using migrant labour in palm oil is nothing new

When the Dutch first introduced oil palms to south-east Asia 150 years ago, they brought migrants from India and China to cultivate the plantations. Now the region employs workers from countries including Nepal, Thailand, the Philippines, Burma, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Vietnam.

Oil palm plantations are among the least monitored worksites in the world due to their remoteness and size, but the rapid growth of mobile phone technology is bringing the industry’s abuses out of the shadows.
3. A desperation to work makes migrant workers vulnerable

“Some come from very dire situations, and migrate for work in order to survive,” says Daryll Delgado, the research and stakeholder engagement programme manager at labour rights non-profit Verité South East Asia. “Many of them leave their families, sell their lands or borrow money to finance the cost of migration for work.”

An eagerness to earn a living, plus a lack of knowledge of the job and the country they are being recruited into, makes migrants vulnerable to deception and false promises.
4. Migrant workers have fewer rights than local workers

Many workers lack proper documentation and the conditions of stay are dependent on their employers or sponsors, explains Delgado.

“They are not as free to move around or mingle with society, they cannot easily change jobs even if the conditions are untenable […] they cannot easily refuse the terms of the job given to them, they cannot advocate for better conditions, they usually don’t have access to grievance mechanisms, they cannot join unions. [Plus] there are other barriers, such as language, culture, and gender which also adds to their vulnerability.”
5. Brands will push suppliers to improve labour standards

NGOs have a history of campaigning against workers’ rights violations but Pablo Pacheco, principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research, believes consumer goods companies will also increasingly pressure palm oil suppliers to demonstrate they don’t violate labour standards.

We’ve already seen this happen for environmental sustainability. For example, companies including Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, Nestlé and Unilever pledged not to source from palm oil giant IOI after the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – a body set up to address environmental and social issues in palm oil – suspended IOI’s sustainability certification in April over allegations of deforestation.

The NGO accuses Malaysian palm oil company IOI of failing to act in accordance with its own sustainability policies and Indonesian law
6. Businesses must take control of recruitment

To demonstrate real commitment to preventing the exploitation of migrant labour, Delgado says suppliers must invest time and resources in the ethical recruitment and fair hiring of migrant workers.

First, they must get to the root of the problem, going as far back as the source country, district or village where workers come from and look into the recruitment practices of usually unauthorised, unregulated labour brokers and sub-agents.

“[Then] they should take full control of the whole recruitment and hiring process, conduct due diligence of their labour suppliers, provide workers decent working and living conditions, give them access to communication and grievance mechanisms, protect them from discrimination, and let them enjoy their basic rights to freedom of movement and association.”
7. A lack of official recognition damages migrant children

The lack of official recognition or status of migrants can mean children are born “stateless” and cannot access government services, including health and education.

Torben Venning, project director of Borneo Child Aid, says the organisation has managed to get the main plantation companies in Malaysia involved in building schools and funding education for children.

In his experience, the RSPO has improved the situation and the problem is greatest at smaller plantations which aren’t RSPO members.

However, to address the issue fully, Venning wants the provision of education for children to be included as a major compliance issue for members in the RSPO’s general principles and criteria.

Check out our short animation on how to clean up the murky world of palm oil