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The Human Side of the Problem

The environmental impact related to palm oil has been on the industry’s radar for some time, however human rights and forced labour abuses in the supply chain of the world’s most traded oil have long been ignored. Malaysia and Indonesia are leading producers, together accounting for 86% of global production and employ as many as 3.5 million workers to maintain plantations and harvest the oil. However, the issue is indeed global, with Colombia, South American’s largest palm oil producer planning to increase production six-fold by 2020.

In 2018, we commissioned a report by the Fair Labor Association which looked at the extent of this complex issue, as well as the role of the consumer goods industry in driving change and eradicating this problem. The report revealed many indicators of forced labour associated with the sourcing of the commodity, including debt bondage, passport retention, recruitment fees, and restricted worker movement: abuses all addressed by our Priority Industry Principles, which is why we chose the palm oil sector as a key focus point when operationalising the Principles. We have also developed an action plan based upon the recommendations in the FLA report.

Taking Action Collectively

No one company or organisation can solve these challenges on their own, however our members are undertaking a series of initiatives to better understand the impact on their own palm oil supply chains and to develop and implement systemic measures to tackle abuses. We hold advocacy events on the ground in key geographies, notably Malaysia, where we held our Regional Roundtables on Responsible Recruitment in 2018, bringing together brands, suppliers and recruitment agencies.  

We have also been working continuously to improve certifications. In 2004, the palm oil sector responded to international criticism of its environmental and social impacts by launching the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This year, our Board sent a letter to the RSPO insisting that the standards uphold our industry resolution on forced labour. Our newly launched Sustainable Supply Chain Initiative, a programme to benchmark and recognise sustainability standards, will support socially responsible palm oil supply chains worldwide. Palm oil is here to stay, and we therefore have the obligation to must make sure that it is socially responsible.