It's time to take the bull by the horns, RSPO

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Anu Kultalahti |

The current criteria needs updating as the RSPO has often been criticised for being an ineffective system. Finnwatch, for example, has highlighted numerous human rights issues at RSPO certified palm oil plantations starting from 2014 and has encouraged various actors to work together with the RSPO to develop the system.

Unfortunately, the first draft for the new criteria drawn up by an RSPO-appointed working group, which has now been sent out for commentary, is weak and does not include sufficient measures for correcting the system's problems. If the RSPO does not take the bull by the horns and close all the loopholes in its criteria, human rights violations will continue to take place in certified palm oil production.

With regard to workers' rights, the greatest shortcomings in the draft are related to a living wage and freedom of association. This does not come as a surprise.

If the RSPO does not take the bull by the horns and close off all the loopholes in its criteria, human rights violations in certified palm oil production will continue.

The problems related to freedom of association in numerous significant palm oil production countries are well known. Even so, RSPO certifications are continuously granted to plantations whose workers do not in practice have any possibility of organising or holding negotiations with their employers on their working conditions.

The world's leading system should be able to do better than this. In its feedback to the RSPO, Finnwatch has recommended that the criterion concerning freedom of association should include a requirement for proof collected from workers and labour unions. At present, the compliance is only checked on paper.

Although the RSPO's criteria already require the payment of a living wage, reality is a different story – workers on plantations have sometimes been paid even illegally low wages.

Finnwatch has advised the RSPO to include the definition for a living wage in its updated criteria. Additionally, the RSPO must calculate a living wage using the Anker Methodology developed by the Global Living Wage Coalition. The Anker Methodology is currently the most comprehensive living wage calculation model.

It is of key importance that a living wage is also guaranteed for workers whose wages are performance-based. In this respect as well, the RSPO's draft on new criteria is lacking.

Although the RSPO's criteria already require the payment of a living wage, reality is a different story – workers on plantations have sometimes been paid even illegally low wages.

There is also still room for improvement in the section of the criteria concerning forced labour. The measures listed in the criteria draft to guarantee that workers are at their workplaces voluntarily cannot be considered sufficient by any means.

The draft completely disregards for example misleading information on nature of the job and terms of employment given to potential workers at the recruitment stage. Statistically, the provision of misleading and deceitful information in the recruitment process is one of the most common methods for forcing a person to work in addition to debt bondage and threats of violence.

In spite of its numerous shortcomings, the RSPO-appointed working group's draft also includes some good points. If the draft is approved, the RSPO will join the group of pioneers who have explicitly prohibited the collection of recruitment fees from workers.  At their worst, high recruitment fees lead to debt bondage.

However, for the prohibition to be effective, the RSPO must specify which fees are among those that are prohibited. Recruitment agencies have traditionally been very creative in this respect, and for this reason Finnwatch recommends that the employer pay all official and unofficial fees related to recruitment.

Additionally, the RSPO should add a requirement to its criteria that certified plantations must use recruitment agencies supervised by authorities in the recruitment of migrant workers. When using recruitment agencies that do not have official permits, the risks of forced labour and human trafficking grow exponentially.


Anu Kultalahti

Anu on tutkija Finnwatchin Ihmisarvoisen työn tutkimusohjelmassa. Ohjelmassa keskitytään järjestäytymisvapautta, työaikoja, elämiseen riittävää palkkaa ja työturvallisuutta koskeviin kysymyksiin yritysten alihankintaketjuissa kehittyvissä maissa.

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