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Mapping of Labour Issues and Advocacy Works in Palm Oil Production

The palm oil industry employs millions of people and generates billions of dollars in turnover for private companies as well as vital government revenue in key producer countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia.

Oxfam Novib (WN) have colaborated with CIRCLE Indonesia to conduct Mapping of Labour Issues and Advocacy Works in Palm Oil Production. This mapping is conducted to explore the social impact of palm oil industry in particular the labor issues in light of the guidelines and criteria of sustainable palm oil developed in the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The review is intended to generate informed input to Oxfam International, participating in RSPO, for improving and testing labour standards in RSPO and beyond. The programme had the following main objectives.

  1. To promote an effective implementation of international labour standards in the palmoil production.
  2. To ensure the right issues on labour are brought into the RSPO by having an open communication on labour between NGOs (Sawit Watch and Oxfam International) inside the RSPO and NGOs and trade unions outside the RSPO .
  3. To Identify the tensions in interpreting the RSPO Labour Criteria within the national legal context on employment and labour.

The programme had several expected outcome, namely

  • Report with insight in most important labour issues in palmoil industry in producing countries and recommendations for further research in relation to the implementation of RSPO criteria.
  • A plan for an open communication flow between social NGOs and trade unions on labour.

What We Have Found

  • Social criteria in RSPO guidelines and criteria, with focus on labour issue, has been formulated to follow the ILO conventions on labour issue that if applied properly will reflect the commitment of stakeholders in the palm oil industry to respect the core labour standards such as freedom of Association. Advocacy NGOs, however, are still sceptical on the implementation of the criteria if there is no sufficient support at the country level to provide the necessary legal framework for its implementation.
  • All over the world, cases from Asia to Africa and Latin America show that labour conditions in the palm oil industry have not been addressed in accordance with ILO conventions or the RSPO social criteria on labour. Although, e.g. London Sumatra in Indonesia and Fedepalma in Colombia have claimed to adopt this criterion in managing labour issues in their oil palm plantation, the reality shows otherwise.
  • Despite the abundance of information available on oil palm only a few revealed the true situation of workers comprehensively. Most of the studies and literature covers a wide scope of oil palm industry issues, while some focus only on the impact to environment or indigenous people.
  • A big number (#) of labour conflicts has been reported, but it is assumed many more labour issues in the palm oil sector have gone unreported.
  • NGOs around the world have not yet done much in advocating the right of labourers in oil palm plantations. In the worst reported cases, where killing of trade union leaders happened such as in Colombia, pressure from international markets and between governments is needed to stop the violation of workers’ rights in the plantation.
  • These are mainly the typical plantation labour issues, but are often linked with other social issues, i.e. smallholder contract labour, gender, occupational health and safety, migration, etc. Labour issues are fighting for priority attention with these, let alone the environmental and social issues related to land use changes for establishing new palm oil plantations. Therefore, it is important to coordinate labour advocacy with other social stakeholders.
  • The palm oil sector employs large numbers (#) of labourers, in a wide variety of arrangements but the majority in various traditional plantation settings, requiring a tailored approach.
  • Female workers compose majority of the labour force in oil palm plantations, especially as casual labourers although there is no reliable statistics can be obtained on the number of female workers in this industry. There is no extensive study revealing their situation that could provide foundation for gender specific advocacy work on oil palm. Tenaganita and PAN have conducted studies on the impact of pesticides to female workers but more needs to be done to form a strong foundation for female workers advocacy.
  • Other labour issues that need to be highlighted is the issue of daily workers/casual labours who are not under protection of labour law around the world. It is predicted that the expansion of new oil palm plantations will use casual workers rather than permanent ones; migrant workers who are considered as illegal workers are in need of special redress.
  • Plantation labour is generally poorly paid, highly dependent on the employer in all aspects of life and regularly exposed to danger and unhealthy working condition. Inequities between various types of labour (day labour vs. permanent workers, men vs. women) are widely reported. It is crucial to explore further how the salary scheme in the plantation formulated and what spaces can be intervened to ensure that discrimination upon wage can be eliminated.
  • In general, company staffs, NGOs and labour organizations are lacking of common knowledge about the RSPO standards and how these can be utilized as advocacy tools.

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