Migrant Workers' in Malaysia's Palm Oil Sector - RSPO Panel Discussion

1 February 2022

RSPO Panel Discussion

We are taking the opportunity to review a panel discussion from a year ago today. The panel discussion was held by The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) on the challenges facing the palm oil industry in regard to the labour and welfare of migrant workers. The issues discussed continue to hold particular relevance today.

The panel was facilitated by Alexandra Experton (Cargill) and participated in by Surina Ismail (IOI Corporation Berhad), Jerald Joseph (Commissioner at Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM), Matthew Friedman (Modern Slavery Expert) and Aarti Kapoor (Embode).

Panel Perspectives

The panel began with speakers’ inputs on why there are still major concerns on forced labour whilst the palm oil sector is taking more action on improving stands than ever before. The panel ensued into an energising discussion leading to the consideration of how the sector needs to talk ‘with’ workers rather than just talking ‘about’ them.

Concerns relating to migrant labour standards are serious. Migrant workers in Malaysia’s palm oil sector continue to face high risks of exploitation and forced labour, experiencing a range of violations from unfair recruitment to unsafe working practices. These workers often have little to no  access to legal or political recourse. Social concerns related to palm oil operations are also among the most difficult to identify and audit. Meanwhile, the demand for palm oil continues to grow, meaning an increasing need for a large migrant labour workforce in Malaysia.

There were a variety of perspectives raised by the panel. Jerald Joseph from the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, said that the vulnerability of migrant workers has increased due to ‘desperate economic need’ and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. He pointed out that unlike their local colleagues, migrant workers being foreigners could not set up unions, making them even more vulnerable in trying to defend their rights.

Aarti Kapoor addressed the point that most corporate grievance mechanisms that have been established are not working. This is because workers do not feel comfortable to speak up and feel extremely vulnerable to negative retributive treatment. This calls for an approach that goes beyond compliance, which commonly looks at narrowly defined indicators. The next step is to urgently address attitudinal, behavioral and cultural changes in palm oil production companies and supply chains. Fundamental to this approach is the need to hear the voice of migrant workers. “It is one of the elephants in the room… We are all talking about migrant workers but how often do we actually talk to migrant workers themselves?” Aarti Kapoor.

The full RSPO video on the panel discussion can be found here. 

See here for media reporting on this important panel discussion.

Learn more

Learn more about the issues facing migrant workers in Malaysia in  Embode’s  publication ‘The Road to Worthy Work and Valuable Labour’. The study has been further expanded into a number of focus assessments which go into depth about specific aspects of the workers’ experiences. Readers are called in particular to Focus Assessment 6 on a ‘Strategic Analysis of Stakeholders and Dynamics’.

Executive Summary (9 pages)

Main Report (45 pages)

Focus Assessments (providing more in-depth analysis)

1. The Malaysian Palm Oil Sector and Sustainability Trends

2. The Malaysian Foreign Employment Regulatory Framework

3. Labour Sending Country Frameworks

4. The Role and Function of Agents

5. The Situation of Migrant Labour in the Palm Oil Sector

6. Strategic Analysis of Stakeholders and Dynamics

This research was commissioned by Bunge Loders Croklaan, Cargill, and Mondel─ôz International. The report provides important recommendations on how companies, governments, employers and recruitment agents can improve the protection of migrant workers and better ensure that their fundamental rights are respected and upheld.