Investigation into palm oil slavery allegations 'fell short'

posted by Anna Scott
24 November 2015

The validity of a compliance audit conducted into allegations of modern slavery on plantations operated by Malaysian palm oil giant FELDA has been called into question.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a not-for-profit membership organisation for palm oil stakeholders, asked Accreditation Services International (ASI) to conduct the audit into the operations of FELDA.

The company, a supplier to CargillWilmarProcter & Gamble and Nestlé, was the subject of a Wall Street Journal article exposing human trafficking, forced labour and withholding of wages on three of its plantations.

At the time FELDA emphatically denied employing illegal immigrants, stating that all plantation workers are employed in full compliance of all regulations and laws. A statement read: “We have taken proactive steps to enhance awareness among the foreign workers on their rights and welfare through block meetings.” The company also agreed with the RSPO to appoint an independent auditor to assess the claims.

However, a coalition of international labour rights and environmental groups, co-ordinated by the Rainforest Action Network, found ASI’s report to be “troubling”, saying it “fell far short of what was required”, and called on FELDA’s customers and financiers to independently investigate forced labour and human trafficking.

The coalition suggested that RSPO’s current systems and methodologies for auditing when forced labour and human trafficking issues arise on its members’ plantations were “problematic”, including providing advance warning of visits and a shortage of time to investigate allegations.

“The [ASI] compliance audit found major non-compliances with RSPO requirements at all FELDA estates visited and determined that RSPO certification bodies had not properly evaluated compliance,” said the coalition. “However, the conclusions of the report were weaker on forced labour and human trafficking, potentially highlighting the inadequacy of the RSPO principles and criteria in screening such risks.”

In particular, the coalition stated, the principles and criteria fail to require evaluation of workers’ recruitment processes. “It’s in the recruitment of new workers where deception, a critical element of forced labour and trafficking, normally occurs.”

ASI said the process of interviewing workers was comprehensive, with 127 workers interviewed anonymously and individually about working conditions, employment terms, training and safety. No evidence of workers being coerced through violence or intimidation was found, it added.

“ASI is disappointed that the outcome of the assessments fell short of RSPO stakeholders’ expectations. The assessments were conducted in full compliance with RSPO requirements and the findings presented in the ASI report are justified in regards to the evidence gathered during the audit and the RSPO accreditation requirements.”

In a statement the RSPO said: “ASI and RSPO continue to encourage input from NGOs and relevant stakeholders regarding upcoming assessments in 2016.”

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