By Emily Chow and A. Ananthalakshmi
KUALA LUMPUR Nov 30 Human rights abuses at palm
oil plantations are going unpunished by the industry watchdog
due to weak rules, critics say, as an Amnesty International
report on Wednesday exposed severe violations at Indonesian
Adequate access for workers to food and water is considered
a "minor" compliance requirement, according to the Roundtable on
Sustainable Palm Oil's (RSPO) certification guidelines. So are
adequate housing, medical and educational facilities.
One RSPO rule says it is acceptable for children to work in
estates owned by their family, as long as it doesn't interfere
with their education and they are not exposed to hazardous
Human rights advocates say the RSPO's labour guidelines show
little concern for the welfare of workers, making its claim that
its members are sustainable producers unreliable.
"Simply put, the RSPO does not protect workers and is unable
to provide truly responsible palm oil," said Emma Lierley,
Forests Communications Manager at California-based Rainforest
Action Network (RAN).
Palm oil is the most widely used edible oil in the world,
found in everything from margarine to cookies and soap. Grown
mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia, plantations have come under
scrutiny from activists and consumer companies, particularly
over the clearing of millions of hectares of forest.
The RSPO certificate, seen as a global standard for
sustainability claims, is used by plantations and consumer goods
companies such as Nestle and Unilever to show
there has been no environmental damage or labour abuses in their
An Amnesty investigation on Wednesday showed children as
young as eight working in hazardous conditions, forced labour
and other violations in RSPO-certified plantations owned by
Wilmar International Ltd.
Despite other reports of abuses, no RSPO member has lost its
certification over labour issues.
In a statement to Reuters, the RSPO said it was aware of the
problems in the industry and conscious of gaps in its
certification guidelines, which will be next reviewed in 2018.
"The RSPO fully acknowledges the existence of serious
problems in the protection of worker and human rights within the
palm oil industry where poverty, weak law enforcement and the
presence of legislative gaps contribute to the challenge of
making the palm oil sector truly sustainable," said Stefano
Savi, global outreach and engagement director of the RSPO.
Under pressure from green groups, RSPO - whose members
include plantations, environmental and social activist groups
and consumer goods manufacturers - has addressed environmental
concerns, but labour rights is an emerging issue.
"There are gaps in standards, implementation and
verification (of labour issues). It is very clear that the RSPO
and the membership has prioritized other topics," said Johan
Verburg, an advisor at charitable group Oxfam and an executive
board member of the RSPO.
At the latest RSPO annual meeting in Bangkok, several calls
were made for labour reforms, some participants told Reuters. A
keynote speech also addressed labour and human rights abuses -
the first time the issue has been addressed so publicly in an
A Reuters analysis of the RSPO's complaints panel - a system
that reviews concerns raised at its member companies - shows
that only two cases of labour abuses were brought to it in 2015
and 2016 based on exposes by media or NGOs.
Many of RSPO's guidelines have been questioned. For
instance, the body allows the use of toxic pesticide paraquat,
which the European Union has banned, under special
Amnesty says most RSPO standards focus on environmental or
broader social impacts on adjoining communities.
"The RSPO has a limited number of standards on workers'
rights and is quite superficial even on the issues that are
covered," said Meghna Abraham, senior investigator at Amnesty.
"The RSPO needs to drastically overhaul not just its
standards but its entire approach to identifying labour abuses."
(Reporting by Emily Chow and A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by