In view of the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, the RSPO Secretariat has decided on a temporary audit procedure to be implemented by all RSPO accredited certification bodies (CBs) for all RSPO Supply Chain Certification (SCC) and RSPO Principles and Criteria (P&C) audits, beginning March 2020. RSPO’s Interim Director of Assurance, Aminah Ang, shared with us the impact of COVID-19 to RSPO certification, RSPO’s temporary audit procedure, and how we seek to maintain the integrity and credibility of the RSPO certification scheme during this challenging time.

COVID-19 has impacted everyone across the globe but tell us more about what this has meant for RSPO’s certification systems? 
Despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, we are committed to delivering quality audits and maintaining the integrity and credibility of our certification. For SCC, we are carrying out a 100% remote audit of a certified unit, which means all annual surveillance and recertification audits are now done remotely. It’s possible to carry out SCC audits this way as the requirements of the standard are more on the traceability of the certified materials, which can be verified remotely. 

For P&C certification, we only allow a combination of remote and onsite audits. To facilitate this process, we have identified a list of requirements or indicators of the standard that require remote and/or onsite audits. P&C audits require interviews and interactions with the community to get feedback on the performance of the certified unit. Besides that, there are also interviews with workers, which requires a high level of confidentiality. The company should not intervene during the interview process and we do not want the workers’ answers to be influenced by the companies. This is the reason why we are implementing both remote and onsite audits for P&C certification, especially on indicators associated with social elements. 

Other than that, we are also allowing PalmTrace licences to be extended beyond three months. When you have an active licence, it means your certificate is valid.

What are the actions taken by RSPO thus far to ensure that all parties involved are clear about this temporary audit procedure?
When we first rolled out this temporary audit procedure, we communicated it to the CBs for them to brief their clients. Then, we posted an official announcement and summary of the new procedure on the COVID-19 Hub of our website. When we developed the SCC audit procedure, we did our own evaluation and went ahead with an announcement to the CBs. For P&C audits, before we sent out the procedure, we had a discussion with all the CBs involved in the audit process, together with our Accreditation Body, Assurance Services International (ASI). We wanted to be sure there was a way forward that still met our high standards.

At the same time, we compiled and summarised a list of queries that we received regarding remote auditing, and uploaded that to our website. The list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) on remote auditing provides various scenarios to give a clearer explanation to all those involved in the audit. Besides English, the FAQ is also available in Bahasa Indonesia, Bahasa Melayu, French, Spanish, and Thai.

Are there any challenges/obstacles in conducting remote audits, and how does RSPO ensure that members uphold the standards and ensure credibility and assurance to all stakeholders?
Yes, there are a number of challenges, including poor internet connection, non-tech savvy independent smallholders, a large amount of documents to be scanned and emailed by companies, as well as their reluctance to send confidential documents to the CBs via email. The CBs’ main concern is the longer time it takes to carry out remote audits. The use of GIS technology is another challenge, as some CBs need to outsource their GIS, which will also incur extra cost and time.  

While the CBs are carrying out remote audits, ASI is also assessing them remotely. ASI requires the CBs to have a procedure in place when they are executing remote audits. Besides that, we also don’t allow 100% remote auditing for P&C, as we need the social requirements to be verified onsite, but audit facilitators can be used when necessary. This is to ensure that the integrity and credibility of our certification system is maintained at all times, despite audits being done semi-remotely.  

As we are not sure when the travel restrictions will be lifted, does RSPO have any other plans in executing the RSPO audits?
Yes. We have evaluated the process on how we can address this requirement, as in certain countries, travel restrictions are still in force. We have identified four scenarios. The first scenario is where CBs can conduct onsite audits, like in Malaysia. For scenario 2, CBs will conduct a remote audit, followed by an onsite audit by the same team later on.

The third scenario is where the CBs still cannot go onsite due to travel restrictions, hence they will carry out remote audits and appoint a local audit facilitator to conduct onsite audits. RSPO has defined a process for the use of an audit facilitator, which you can read more about here

The fourth scenario, which is the worst case scenario, is where the audit team or audit facilitator cannot  conduct audits due to travel restrictions or tight quarantine procedures. If that’s the case, they can combine this year’s audit with next year’s. However, the CBs have to increase their audit sampling size, by adding 50% from last year, and also increase man-days to carry out a thorough audit. 

For independent smallholder standards, we will now allow a 100% remote audit for the Eligibility Phase, provided that within six months after obtaining certification, the CB conducts an onsite audit. If any non-compliances (NCs) are found, the independent smallholder’s certificate will be suspended until the issue is resolved. 

If you have any questions regarding our temporary audit procedure, please contact the Assurance team at [email protected].

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