Joining forces to eradicate forced labour from the Malaysian palm oil sector
Due to the global prevalence of palm oil production, HRC members recognise the high risk for human rights abuses in their supply chains if they are purchasers of palm oil. As such, the HRC has launched the People Positive Palm Project designed to drive collaboration between consumer goods companies and palm oil suppliers in Malaysia to address the issue of forced labour in the Malaysian palm oil sector.
Salient human rights impacts, including forced labour, are driven by systemic political, social, and economic conditions, and no one company, organisation, or government can solve these problems on its own. Collaboration is key for success, which is why HRC members are working with their supply chain partners to address the salient risk of forced labour together. As HRC members implement robust due diligence practices in their own operations, they also seek to ensure their suppliers do the same to ensure the rights of Workers throughout the value chain are protected, respected, and remedied.
To initiate this work, the HRC has identified palm oil as a key commodity for supplier engagement. As the world’s most traded vegetable oil, palm oil is included in consumer goods products ranging from biscuits to shampoos to biofuel. Unfortunately, the production of palm oil has been rife with sustainability challenges. In 2018, the CGF and FLA issued a groundbreaking report on the state of human rights in the Malaysian and Indonesian palm oil industries, highlighting current challenges, root causes, and areas for action to address forced labour risks in the sector. The report revealed many indicators of forced labour associated with the sourcing of palm oil, including debt bondage, passport retention, recruitment fees, and restricted worker movement — abuses all addressed by the CGF’s Priority Industry Principles. The report was an important tool for raising awareness in the consumer goods industry about the high risk of forced labour in this commodity sector.
Building on the CGF’s previous work around human rights and palm oil, the HRC has chosen to start its upstream engagement on the topic of due diligence with the palm oil sector. After this pilot project, the Coalition plans to adapt and scale up learnings to other high-risk commodities. In increasing Worker wellbeing by preventing risks and remedying cases of forced labour, the HRC seeks to create more sustainable labour markets which can contribute to more resilient and successful business models.
Home to the world’s largest palm oil producers, Malaysia has made great progress in sustainability, but there are still ways to go. The willingness of Malaysian palm oil companies to act on sustainability means this is an opportune environment for innovation and impact.
In past years, the Malaysian palm oil industry has made positive impacts on both environmental and social sustainability issues. Deforestation rates have fallen, while actions from both the private and public sectors, including Malaysia’s ratification of various international human rights instruments, including the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention (Protocol 29), have been signs of good progress.
As a result, the HRC’s P3 Project is initially focusing its geographical scope on Malaysia, where palm oil suppliers, government officials, and civil society organisations are eager to collaborate with Coalition members to have a positive, transformative impact.
The mission of the P3 Project is three-fold: the project facilitates collective action on the issue of forced labour, encourages the improvement of suppliers’ capacity for due diligence in their supply chains, and leverages the collective voice of brands, retailers, and suppliers to advocate for stronger policy frameworks to protect Workers. HRC members are working with palm oil suppliers to encourage shared learnings about forced labour risks in the sector and improve suppliers’ capacity for due diligence by offering expert mentorship and technical support. The project also leverages the collective voice of brands, retailers, and suppliers to advocate for enhanced policy frameworks protecting rights of Workers, notably within key migration corridors. It embraces the principles of the UNGPs by bringing together businesses and governments to explore and advance evidence-based and innovative solutions to identify, address, prevent, and remedy cases of forced labour.
The project is intended to run through 2025, by which participating palm oil suppliers are intended to have implemented and/or improved their forced labour-focused HRDD approach so that they offer a robust approach to the issue. The project will use the HRC’s HRDD Maturity Journey Framework for Palm Oil Supply Chains – derived from the same framework developed for HRC members to use in their own operations – as a reference document that complements other resources.
Importantly, the project seeks to align the efforts of members and their suppliers to leverage collective action while avoiding duplication with existing projects and initiatives. As a result the P3 Project will strengthen efforts across the industry to reduce forced labour risks in a more powerful and impactful manner.
The project is supported by the HRC’s technical implementation partners, the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and UN International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Learn more about the project’s different priority actions below or in our informative one-pager:
Through the project, participating suppliers in Malaysia are offered a series of no-cost collaborative ‘Learning Series’ workshops to build and share knowledge on how to address key forced labour risks. It is designed to train members’ palm oil suppliers and their upstream supply chains in an open-source format. All staff from palm oil suppliers in Malaysia is invited to participate: beyond sustainability teams, the project aims to empower employees from a range of functional teams to combat forced labour. They will target the salient issues faced by suppliers regarding forced labour and learn practical steps that can be taken towards mitigation.
The first Learning Series workshop was held in Kuala Lumpur on 14th March 2023 and focused on introducing the concept of human rights due diligence (HRDD) as an effective tool for identifying, addressing, and preventing human rights impacts, especially around forced labour, in the palm oil supply chain. The second Learning Series workshop was held on 17th May 2023 and focused on the topic of Worker-paid recruitment fees.
Interested organisations seeking to attend these workshops are invited to reach out to the HRC team here.
The engagement track focuses on helping interested suppliers engage more on the subject of responsible recruitment with expert one-on-one advisory. In this track, suppliers will work through a Maturity Journey Framework via a gap analysis of their existing human rights due diligence systems on forced labour and receive tailored feedback and advisory services from FLA and IOM. Participants in this track receive the most support, allowing them to have the potential to derive the most benefit. They also commit to understand, address, and prevent Worker-paid fees as part of broader efforts to support responsible recruitment and will have the full support of the Coalition and technical expert partners.
In parallel, FLA provides customised coaching to help participants establish robust responsible recruitment policies and practices; understand and develop action plans to address fees and costs that may have been paid by Workers; and strengthen existing mechanisms or pilot new initiatives. Additionally, participants commit to taking continued action to recruit responsibly in the future and to share learnings, progress, and challenges to advance industry action.
Interested organisations seeking to benefit from this advisory support are invited to reach out to the HRC team here.
The cumulative learnings from the learning, engagement, and remedy activities are to build into the ultimate mission of the project: collective advocacy for systemic change. These actions will contribute towards collective advocacy to address forced labour in the Malaysian palm oil sector, particularly within key migration corridors, and support further learning to scale into other geographies and categories from HRC members. Suppliers are invited to participate in advocacy sessions with the Government of Malaysia and other stakeholders organised by HRC, FLA, and IOM. The P3 Project’s work on collective advocacy focuses on priority interventions identified by the partners, members, and suppliers.
Overall, the project seeks to support stakeholders in aligning practices with current and upcoming legal requirements on HRDD, including Malaysia’s National Action Plan on Forced Labour (NAPFL).
At our first P3 Project Learning Series workshop in Kuala Lumpur, we were honoured to host YAB Dato’ Sri Haji Fadillah Yusof, Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, and Minister of Plantation and Commodities, who offered opening remarks for the event. We are pleased he and the Ministry of Plantation and Commodities support our project and its ambitions, and look forward to collaborating with them closely as the project progresses.
The HRC’s efforts around palm oil are also strengthened by the agenda of CGF’s other working group on palm oil in our environmentally minded Forest Positive Coalition, as well as the Sustainable Supply Chain Initiative (SSCI), which promotes good social and environmental practices in global supply chains by benchmarking and recognising third-party audit programmes and certification schemes. Together, these groups comprehensively approach the issue of palm oil to address the human rights, environmental and supply chain management concerns which make it a high-risk commodity. Still, our members know that palm oil is here to stay, and we therefore have the obligation to make sure it is sourced in a socially responsible manner.