Strengthening the social criteria within our standards and enhancing social auditing to eliminate child and labour abuses in oil palm plantations is high on our agenda, and remain a key priority for the RSPO Secretariat, our members, and stakeholders. However, despite having stringent standards and various tools in place, problems can still occur.

We caught up with RSPO’s Human Rights and Social Standards Manager, Kamini Visvananthan, who shared her perspective on why and how labour issues can sometimes slip through the cracks within farming and agricultural settings.

Kamini, why are we still hearing about issues and abuses taking place in the oil palm sector when so much has been done to strengthen and improve labour rights standards?
Unfortunately, labour issues still exist because the issues on the ground are very hard to detect and monitor. For environmental concerns, there are very technical and scientific ways to monitor and measure changes, which will provide objective evidence. However, for human rights-related issues, especially labour-related compliances, the evidence can be very subjective, as it involves a lot of paperwork and verification with workers on the ground.

You can have the perfect system, but things can still go wrong because of this subjectivity. This is the reason why it’s ‘easier’, for lack of a better word, for human rights violations to occur. In saying this, it is also the reason why RSPO members developed and adopted the most stringent version of our certification standard thus far – the 2018 RSPO P&C. It aims to help members build a better system to not only take care of their workers to ensure they meet the requirements, but also to assist them in detecting any orange or red flags, and remedy these quickly and efficiently. However, we have to acknowledge that standards can only go so far. Our members must be able to take these standards and make positive, systemic changes.

What else can RSPO do and what measures can be taken, to further enhance the current standards and tools to strengthen human rights in oil palm plantations?
The RSPO standard is considered the gold standard for sustainable palm oil production, however, we also want to develop more guidance on implementation. We have been working very hard in coming up with various guidances to provide greater context into specific topics, sectors and/or issues.

For example, we have developed a series of child rights guidance documents for different stakeholder groups, which will be launched soon and we are also in the process of revising the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) guidance. In the coming months, we aim to produce a gender guidance, which is considered a new topic in the RSPO platform. 

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, we also provided training on the implementation of the standards, where we worked with our auditors and conducted auditing workshops, enhancing our auditing and certification system documents by adding a lot of social angles, which were absent before this. Besides that, we have also produced training modules, such as one for FPIC that we are now redesigning so that our members can use it to train their own workforce. We have also worked on an FPIC module and Social Accountability module for RSPO’s Sustainability College.

Another key priority of the RSPO Human Rights Working Group (HRWG) is to identify the gaps within RSPO’s standards relating to implementing the standards, as well as monitoring the impact  to see how the RSPO standards have helped members move towards or improve their sustainability commitments. These tasks are either ongoing or are in the HRWG’s pipeline for the next three years.

You mentioned earlier that RSPO will come up with a series of Child Rights Guidance documents. What does RSPO hope to achieve with them and why is there a need to have separate documents for different stakeholder groups?
The child rights guidance documents are a result of a memorandum of understanding we had with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) concerning the impact of the palm oil industry on children. This was back in 2016 when UNICEF carried out a study in Malaysia and Indonesia, which identified seven impact areas. 

The intention of the guidance documents is very clear – we hope children can grow up in an environment where they can reach their full potential, despite their circumstances. The guidance documents aim to help our members to see how they can address the impact areas, and work together with their workers and the communities around their plantations to mitigate the impact of the industry on children.

Essentially, different stakeholders each have a different role to play, which is why we have created separate guidances. Although they are following the same principles that are aligned with the P&C, how each stakeholder group carries out their role is different, so we hope that these guidance documents will encourage stakeholders to take greater strides and ownership of their respective role.

For more information on RSPO’s Human Rights and Social Standards unit, click here.

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