Humans taking back seat to environment in palm oil impact talks, activists say

UK daily The Guardian reported today an ‘abusive system’ to be prevalent in Malaysia’s palm oil industry, involving human trafficking for labour, debt bondage and culminating in the birth of stateless children born to these foreign workers. — Reuters pic
UK daily The Guardian reported today an ‘abusive system’ to be prevalent in Malaysia’s palm oil industry, involving human trafficking for labour, debt bondage and culminating in the birth of stateless children born to these foreign workers. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 10 — In the storm over the palm oil sector’s slash-and-burn practices, Malaysia’s migrant worker “unfriendly” laws have been overshadowed by the uproar over environmental concerns that resulted in the thick haze that recently blanketed Southeast Asia, rights activists claim.

Citing several migrant rights advocacy experts, UK daily The Guardian reported today an “abusive system” to be prevalent in Malaysia’s palm oil industry, involving human trafficking for labour, debt bondage and culminating in the birth of stateless children born to these foreign workers.

“It is a very abusive system that includes labour-trafficking, debt bondage and unfair payments,” Eric Gottwald, legal and policy director at the International Labour Rights Forum, was quoted as saying.

Malaysia is the world’s second biggest producer of palm oil after Indonesia and with the country seeking to leap from the ranks of middle-income into high-income, much of the labour-intensive jobs have been farmed out to workers from other lower-income countries.

Once in Malaysia, many of these foreign workers are hired as day labourers, but without any written contract that would safeguard their rights, Gottwald told The Guardian.

“A lot of those workers are undocumented and Malaysian law is very unfriendly to migrants,” he was quoted saying.

Rikke Netterstrom, managing director of a sustainability consulting firm Helikonia based here and in Singapore, said the poor treatment often starts at workers’ hometowns where they are recruited through agent networks that charge for getting them a job at the plantations, The Guardian reported.

“There is a whole issue of fees being paid before [the migrants] start their journey ... so many of these workers, even before they arrive, have considerable debts,” she was quoted as saying.

According to The Guardian, child labour has also been reported in the palm oil industry dominated by both Indonesia and Malaysia, purportedly due to the high harvesting quotas imposed by the plantations on workers.

In the same report, the British paper also highlighted the issue of stateless children, noting that because these offspring were born to undocumented migrants, they could not gain access to government services, which include health and education.

The paper cited Marcus Colchester, senior policy adviser at the Forest Peoples Programme, who estimated 60,000 stateless children in Sabah alone.

Netterstrom said it is generally felt that most initiatives have prioritised the environmental impacts of palm oil production and neglected the social ones.

“Deforestation and land issues have taken prevalence. There was a push on the labour conditions side but we have only seen [labour issues being taken seriously] in the last year,” she was quoted saying.

She added that it is “incredibly tough” for companies to control how much workers have to pay brokers to get a job in the plantations and that no plantation has been able to address this issue.

But The Guardian reported that exploitation of migrant workers is not exclusive to the palm oil sector.

Other raw materials including sugar or rubber also rely on this vulnerable workforce mostly from the Philippines, Nepal, Bangladesh and Indonesia, while the fishing industry has also been in the spotlight in recent months due to the extensive use of slave workers.