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Ensuring workers'​ rights are upheld this Labour Day and everyday despite COVID-19 challenges

Kamini Visvananthan Human Rights and Social Standards Consultant

Up until a few years ago, May 1st was just another public holiday. I didn’t think too much

about what or whom this holiday was dedicated to, and how their efforts affect our daily lives and consumer goods products we don’t even think twice about as consumers. That was before I started working for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil Secretariat. Being part of this facilitator of sustainable change for the oil palm sector has opened my eyes to how ingrained palm oil is in our daily lives (It’s in so many products!), the impact it has on the planet, as well as on the workers and communities involved in the oil palm industry.

I was fortunate to be involved in supporting our members during the revision of the RSPO Principle and Criteria (P&C) 2018 and the adoption of the same. There is a lot to celebrate and be proud of with these revised standards. Not only did the RSPO step forward in incorporating no deforestation, no exploitation, fire prevention and no new planting on peatlands, as well as a framework to ensure members implement NDPE, but they also took a huge leap forward in strengthening the criteria for human and labour rights.

According to the International Labour Organization, there are 281 million workers living in extreme poverty in emerging and developing countries such as China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. In Indonesia alone, there are 16 million workers in the palm oil supply

chain, of which 3.78 million are plantation workers. In Malaysia, the second largest palm oil producing country globally, there are 451,507 plantation workers. Ensuring that these workers are treated fairly and that their rights are upheld is a key priority for the RSPO Secretariat and our members. With Labour Day just around the corner and a global pandemic on our hands, it is now more crucial than ever that social obligations be upheld and that the wellbeing of workers doesn’t fall by the wayside.

The enhanced criteria in the 2018 P&C ensures that adequate protection to the rights of workers (and their families) on plantations are in line with international and local standards including SDG principles, UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (2011), ILO Conventions on Forced Labour, Abolition of Forced Labour, Minimum Age, Worst Forms of Child Labour, and more.

RSPO is also the first certification standard to adopt a zero-tolerance policy on threats against Human Rights Defenders, and we have made a commitment to safeguard the confidentiality of those involved. In June last year, RSPO launched a first of its kind guidance document for the oil palm industry on the payment of a ‘Decent Living Wage’ (DLW), adopted from the Global Living Wage Coalition (GLWC) Methodology, to determine the DLW in RSPO certified units for all workers and have since been working on helping members calculate the value of the prevailing wages paid to its workers. Furthermore, the P&C

contains many provisions which guide the development and implementation of SOPs for members to manage their workforce, including provisions for work protections like Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and safe working conditions, as well as a commitment to meeting or exceeding the local national minimum wages.

Despite these provisions and a number of enhancements however, nobody could have predicted we’d be facing the global pandemic of COVID-19 in the first quarter of 2020. Yet in true RSPO style, we are working with members and stakeholders to adapt to this evolving situation. In the coming weeks, we aim to deliver webinars and workshops on this evolving topic and its effects on the operations of our members. This will include seeing how our members are dealing with this novel coronavirus situation and understanding what additional support they may need. We are also working on a number of guidance documents across key social issues, which will be made available on our website in the second half of the year.

As far as social obligations to workers, we encourage all RSPO members to ensure you are making every effort to continue to create a safe environment for workers, provide job security, fair wages, and the provision of healthy and adequate food, among other social requirements within the 2018 P&C. You may refer to the International Labour Organization’s COVID-19 Enterprises Resources for additional guidance on what is expected of businesses at this time.

Now is also a critical time for the millions of oil palm smallholders globally who rely on this crop for their livelihoods. Ensuring that smallholders are paid on time so that they can support their families and communities is imperative. If there are shortages of vital and important foodstuffs or supplies, we ask that you take immediate action to address these issues. Furthermore, we must also consider migrant workers and make sure they are not disproportionately affected by the economic and health impacts of COVID-19. This includes ensuring that obligations related to housing, food, and employment are cross checked to ensure that workers are able to practice social distancing in a safe and practical way. You may refer to the United Nations’s International Organisation for Migration Guidance for Employers and Businesses on Protection of Migrant Workers During the COVID-19 Crisis for more information and guidance.

Lastly, we encourage all members to review and implement the World Health Organisation’s COVID-19 Advice for Public as well as refer to your local and national regulations and specific guidance related to the precautions and treatment of COVID-19.

It’s important that we continue to work together to find solutions to the challenges that we face as a global community. I wish everyone a Happy Labour Day. Take care, stay safe.

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