A Palm Oil Plantation

The celebration of Earth Day this month provides the opportunity to reflect on the overlap between labor rights and the environment.

Verité has found a strong correlation between labor abuses and environmental damages. Often, activities that violate environmental regulations take place in areas where the government lacks the capacity to adequately enforce the law. Verité’s research into palm oil and illegal gold mining, for example, has found that the absence of the rule of law at remote worksites can result in permanent ecosystem damage, dangerous working conditions, and risk of forced labor.

Worksites like illegal gold mines, which are already operating unlawfully, are less likely to provide safe and legal working conditions. In Peru, the inaccessibility of mines isolates workers, leaving them highly vulnerable to debt bondage, where labor brokers provide wage advances at a rate that is almost impossible for the miners to repay.

The repercussions of illegal gold extraction on natural landscapes are especially dramatic in the Amazon Basin. Forests are clear-cut on a large-scale to allow illegal miners to easily access the topsoil, resulting in accelerated deforestation. Once the gold is found, mercury is used to process it, which is harmful to the workers handling the gold and to the entire ecosystem. The United Nations estimates that for every gram of gold produced with this method, two to five grams of mercury are released into the environment, entering major water systems and affecting the entire food chain. Exposure to mercury results in serve damage to major organs and nervous systems of humans and animals alike, with children being most vulnerable to the effects.

Palm oil production is another sector where labor risks and damaging environmental practices intersect. The Rainforest Action Network has labeled palm oil one of the leading contributors to deforestation. In one five-year period, ALOP estimated that 148,000 acres of forest were cleared for palm oil in Northern Guatemala. Deforestation can force some palm oil operations to move deeper into remote areas, as our research in Guatemala shows. Like illegal gold mining, payment advances to isolated workers leave them indebted to employers and at risk of forced labor. Additionally, land grabs linked to development of palm plantations can leave workers landless and completely dependent on these plantations as their only source of employment. The lack of alternative employment opportunities in towns surrounding plantations frequently means locals accept exploitative work arrangements because they have no other options.

Working to improve conditions in palm oil production, Verité participates in the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), helping to facilitate stronger labor, employment, human rights and business ethics standards and protocols for this multi-stakeholder initiative. Verité is also working with major companies along the palm oil supply chain to improve labor standards and practices.

Verité and others continue to promote ethical labor practice in the gold sector. Our colleagues at the Alliance for Responsible Mining have created the “Fairmined” assurance label to identify ethical producers of gold. Bearing this label means that the gold is produced by responsible artisanal and small-scale mining organizations that reach benchmarks for organizational development, environmental protection, social development, and work conditions; all of which is verified by regular audits.

Verité advocates for stronger government regulation and enforcement, and works with governments, multi-stakeholder initiatives, businesses, and civil society to help build better awareness of labor risk and regulations to protect workers. “If governments establish a presence in the remote areas where palm oil and gold production takes place, or if companies carry out effective due diligence throughout their supply chains, they can reduce the risk of environmental degradation, debt bondage, and other forms of forced labor,” says Program Director Quinn Kepes.

Palm oil and gold are just two examples of sectors in which labor risk and environmental damage are linked. Logging, agriculture, and seafood are other sectors in which these two social risks interact. On this Earth Day remember, if a practice within a sector is harmful to the environment, it is also likely to be harmful to the workers involved. There can be a great benefit to leveraging solutions that address both labor and environmental risk in a holistic and coordinated way.

For more information please contact Quinn Kepes.


Chris Marino, a Verité Intern, contributed to this article. For more information about Verité’s Internships, visit our Careers Page.

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