The abuses of migrant workers in Southeast Asia has been front page news across the world this summer. From captive labour on Thai fishing boats to trafficked workers in the palm oil industry, this topic has been grabbing headlines and yielding new levels of global attention and concern in the past several months. But what is being done to solve such deeply concerning and egregious crimes as forced labour and human trafficking?
One initiative launched earlier this year is the Free and Fair Labour in Palm Oil Production: Principles and Implementation Guidance (‘the Principles’). Concerned about widespread labour abuses in the palm oil industry, a global coalition of NGOs, unions, socially responsible investor groups, and foundations released an articulation of what constitutes free and fair labour in palm oil production.
With palm oil now the world’s most popular vegetable oil, and used globally as cooking oil, biofuel and in consumer products including detergents, cosmetics, and processed food, nearly everyone in the world touches palm oil in one way or another. Long have concerns around widespread deforestation associated with the industry been known, but now there is increasing documentation—by major media outlets, governments, and NGOs—that palm oil production often relies on forced labour and other forms of modern day slavery. Even those plantation and mill workers not subject to forced labour often face harsh working conditions and challenges to basic human and labour rights.
With this as the pretext, the coalition behind the initiative sought to articulate a set of principles and corresponding guidance for companies that source, trade, and produce palm oil to ensure that the rights of workers are respected and that palm oil workers have the opportunity to earn a decent livelihood for themselves and their families.
The Free and Fair Labour Principles and corresponding Implementation Guidance focus on the hired labour workforce on palm oil plantations and mills, where the risk of worker exploitation is greatest. It is based on the frameworks enshrined in International Labour Organization core conventions and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and it builds on the existing standard established by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). It is not intended as a new code of conduct or certifiable standard, but rather as a resource to provide concrete and practical guidance for actors throughout the palm oil supply chain – including growers, traders, processors, retailers, consumer brands, and investors – to enact and support responsible palm oil production.
Leading initiatives in the palm oil industry, such as the Palm Oil Innovation Group have already sought to incorporate the Free and Fair Labour Principles and Guidance into their standards and due diligence processes, and we can expect growing recognition of them in months and years to come.
While much remains to be done in the global fight against modern day slavery and labour abuses, we must look to concrete and practical guidance like that articulated in the Free and Fair Labour in Palm Oil Production: Principles and Implementation Guidance to keep our collective efforts on track to achieve free and fair labour in the palm oil industry within our lifetime.
To read the Free and Fair Labour in Palm Oil Production: Principles and Implementation Guidance, visit http://www.humanityunited.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/PalmOilPrinciples_031215.pdf
The CSR Asia Summit 2015 will explore this topic further in a session on labour rights for migrant workers featuring IKEA, Neste and Flextronics.