The article that follows is a fascinating, first-hand account describing the evolution of how labor and human rights in the palm oil sector have been—and will be—addressed. Daryll Delgado, author of the article and Research and Stakeholder Engagement Lead at Verité Southeast Asia, has been a participant in the past two review processes of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s Principles and Criteria (P&C). She shares her insights on the new standards addressed in the P&C, including human rights, land grabs, and wages, as well as her thoughts on the adoption of the new certification standards.
Palm oil has been very much in the media again after a new Christmas commercial from a major United Kingdom supermarket chain was banned in the UK. The campaign highlighted the environmental destruction caused by palm oil production and called for an “orangutan-friendly Christmas” and “palm-oil free” products. This has sparked intense debate and elicited a strong response from various stakeholders. However, the stakeholders’ message to those calling for a palm oil boycott was that rather than shunning the entire palm oil industry, they should demand sustainable palm oil production. A transparent and credible system to monitor and verify the sustainability of palm oil production and supply chain practices is critical in this debate. With the adoption of the new Principles and Criteria (P&C) in sustainable palm oil certification, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is in a good position to demonstrate the importance of having robust standards in meeting sustainability goals.
In many ways, the 2018 P&C which was overwhelmingly endorsed by the General Assembly on November 15, is now the gold standard as far as certification criteria go. There are now much stronger standards to address negative environmental impacts of palm oil, such as deforestation. And on the social sustainability front, with the adoption of the 2018 P&C, RSPO has become the first certification scheme to fully require implementation of a decent living wage. Apart from this, there are other critical–and potentially groundbreaking, though maybe less controversial–features of the new P&C that offer a huge potential to address systemic labor and human rights issues, an aspect of the sector that is not as well-known or well-understood as the environmental ones.
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The negative environmental impacts of palm oil such as deforestation are very well documented indeed. The inclusion of a No Deforestation criteria in the P&C was strongly pushed by various stakeholders during the public consultation, and the adoption of the standard, along with other environmental protections, was lauded by members, non-members, and even critics of the RSPO alike.

But in the last couple of years, media and independent NGO reports have been shining a light on the human rights abuses which exist in this labor-intensive industry, as well. 

In two of the plenary sessions during the recent palm oil conference of the RSPO in Kota Kinabalu, the increasing number of social issues raised against the RSPO was also highlighted, and the RSPO Complaints Panel shared that they have received and anticipate dealing with more cases pertaining to violations of labor standards and unethical business conduct.
Since 2007, the RSPO has tried to address human rights issues in the P&C. With each P&C review, we saw changes and improvements, but critical gaps still remained. The third, most recent review just completed has called for stronger requirements to apply human rights standards to all RSPO membership categories. This is to ensure that the rights of local and indigenous communities impacted by the production of palm oil are not violated, that there is better protection for human rights defenders and whistleblowers, increased attention on vulnerable worker groups (such as migrants, refugees, women, and young workers) and clearer requirements for labor standards and working conditions, including workers’ right to freedom of association.
I have been involved in the last two review processes and can confidently say that the one we did in 2017-2018 is significantly more inclusive and collaborative. The current P&C 2018, which was voted on by RSPO membership in November 2018, reflects the efforts of the task force to address the gaps surfaced during public consultations, the issues highlighted by media and NGO reports, and the cases tackled by the RSPO Complaints Panel. We endeavored to do this through clearer language and tighter indicators for adherence, and with a view to a comprehensive and systematic application of the standards to different aspects and levels of business operations and transactions where human rights risks could arise.
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Research has shown  that forced and trafficked labor exists in some palm oil supply chains. The risks are higher in operations that rely heavily on migrant workers, and links to land grabs and displacement of peoples compound the issues further. The 2018 P&C, built on the foundations of its predecessor, now requires that payment of recruitment fees, debt bondage and passport withholding are prohibited, and that all overtime work is purely voluntary. There are now also specific indicators covering recruitment agencies and labor contractors, and requiring due diligence and adherence to ethical conduct and prohibition of forced labor in all transactions, including recruitment and other services procured by the unit of certification.
To address the lack of or insufficiency of a minimum wage in some countries, as well as the poor living conditions workers are exposed to, there is also a new indicator requiring that all workers must be paid a decent living wage, including those on piece rate or quotas, which will be calculated based on the Global Living Wage Coalition methodology. Furthermore, the P&C requires members to have a formal policy on the protection of children, a documented process requiring stricter evidence of age screening, and training for company staff on child protection in both plantations and smallholder plots. The application of these labor-related principles now goes beyond the employees recorded in the documents and also covers family members found to be assisting in work.
We have also seen that workers in the sector are often tied to corporate policies, with limited ability to understand, much less influence, their working conditions. Workers must be empowered to come together and collectively bargain for improvements in employment policies and procedures. The new P&C puts in place even stronger indicators to respect the rights of workers to associate, bargain collectively, and to be represented, while establishing better protection and representation for migrant and contract workers. A concerted effort has also been made to ensure the rights of women are protected, addressing any gender gaps which may have existed in the 2013 P&C.
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Agricultural and extractive industries across the globe have a checkered record of gaining proper consent from communities for new plantations or operations. Land grabs and conflict with communities have beset the palm oil industry, particularly in the establishment of new oil palm plantations. Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) has long been at the core of the RSPO, but the new P&C goes further to ensure communities have resourced access to independent advice, that there is better documentation of FPIC procedures, and that gender groups and young people are consulted during the process. Moreover, the new P&C recognizes that “no development” is an option for communities, and that communities are supported by the RSPO system which requires that all members respect the communities’ right to self-determination. The Social Impact Assessment indicators also require that local food security and land use choices are taken into consideration.
To address potential land rights issues, the previous P&C required documents which demonstrate legal ownership or lease, or authorized use of customary land. Under the 2018 P&C, this may include documents other than the legal title to establish a right to use of the land. For communities without formal legal recognition of their land who have resided on it for generations, this will help to provide better protection of their land rights.
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Human rights defenders (HRDs) have faced violence around the world when fighting for community land rights or issuing complaints against various actors. In September 2018, the RSPO Board of Governors adopted the RSPO Policy on Human Rights Defenders (HRDs), Whistleblowers, Complainants and Community Spokespersons. This new policy creates a platform to lodge complaints with the RSPO Complaints Panel against activities undertaken by RSPO members which may undermine their safety and security. It also establishes that RSPO members must develop and install procedures and policies to resolve grievances and to prevent harm to workers, communities, HRDs, or other external bodies that raise grievances. This zero-tolerance policy extends to those persons who have reported in good faith and on reasonable grounds against an RSPO member or an affiliate. The RSPO aims to ensure transparency of grievance procedures, as well as anonymity, confidentiality, and non-reprisal. It also aims to provide access to independent legal and technical advice for complainants.
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In taking on the arduous task of reviewing the P&C along with the other members of the task force and everyone who supported the process, one of our main aims was to come up with a set of standards that could meaningfully demonstrate how certification can remain relevant as a tool for promoting and respecting human rights, and preventing, identifying, and remedying abuses in an agricultural supply chain. Is a set of standards enough? Will the new P&C make everyone happy? No. But does it have the potential to encourage an industry to advance, to be more progressive in terms of human rights? Yes, it does.
The significance of the new labor and human rights indicators in the P&C cannot be emphasized enough. The new P&C is now more closely aligned with ILO standards and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. With the new and restructured P&C, all members of the RSPO are accountable. Everyone is required to uphold these principles and criteria regardless of where they are in the supply chain.
But now the real work begins: implementation and monitoring for effectiveness and impact. Appropriate structures and mechanisms (for assessment, verification, reporting and continuous improvement) must be developed, or existing ones strengthened, in order for these certification standards to deliver the impacts they have the potential to deliver. Everyone to whom the P&C applies–including the auditors and assessors who are responsible for verifying compliance to the standards–must be provided the necessary resources, support, encouragement, and pressure, in order for the P&C to be implemented properly.
Beyond the adoption of certification standards, we need to keep pushing for industry-wide changes that will result in the elimination of human rights risks and abuses. A more strategic means for the RSPO to relate and reach out to external stakeholders, communities, and local groups must be developed. Governments must be engaged so that legal and regulatory frameworks support the RSPO’s sustainability goals. Consumers must be educated on the value of demanding sustainable palm oil production, rather than simply boycotting palm oil, for instance. Workers and communities must be empowered, their agency recognized, and their voice amplified, so that they can meaningfully participate in the processes that impact their lives.
For the last six years, Verité has been intensely engaged not only with standards-setting, but also with other internal RSPO processes and activities. We have likewise been very involved in independent and parallel efforts to raise awareness of labor and human rights issues in the sector, to build capacity among the different actors (business, civil society, government), to support the implementation of the P&C, and to push for innovative ways of addressing systemic issues and promoting good practice. With the new P&C in place, we will continue to work with partners to promote ethical, transparent, and responsible supply chains and production of palm oil, and to de-link palm oil from the exploitation of workers and communities.
For more information, contact Daryll Delgado at

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