‘King Richard’s palm hypocrisy gets slapped

Richard Walker, the UK supermarket heir who famously excluded palm oil from his retail chain in 2018, has had to walk back and reinstate palm oil in his supply chains.

Just to remind: In 2018, Walker undertook a joint marketing campaign with Greenpeace to announce that the supermarket was banning palm oil from its products in order to ‘save’ rainforests and orang-utans.

As we pointed out back then, Walker had plenty of options on palm oil: purchase from companies with zero-deforestation commitments; purchase segregated oil; purchase from countries with no orang-utan population. The decision also went against the consensus of a large number of conservation groups: palm oil boycotts make the situation worse for environmental, economic and social reasons – the essence of sustainability.

For that reason, our assessment in 2018 was simple: this was nothing more than marketing to separate itself in a crowded UK grocery market and be perceived as the ‘good’ guy to consumers prepared to swallow the over-simplified message.

Last week, that commitment on a palm oil boycott was walked back. Walker announced that the company would be switching to palm oil from sunflower because of interruptions to global sunflower supply.

On his blog, Walker stated:

“In many cases we can substitute rapeseed oil, but there are some recipes where the only viable substitute for sunflower oil – either because of its processing properties or taste issues – turns out to be … palm oil.

I say this with huge regret, but the only alternative to using palm oil under the current circumstances would simply be to clear our freezers and shelves of a wide range of staples including frozen chips and other potato products.

So we have agreed to use certified sustainable palm oil – as a last resort and as a strictly temporary measure – in a limited range of Iceland own label products that will begin to appear in our stores from June.”

Walker is effectively stating that his ability to sell frozen chips is more important than his (misguided) principles.

Don’t get us wrong, it’s good news that Walker is buying palm oil again. Reaching the right decision deserves applause, even when it’s taken so long to get there.

But there’s an appalling hypocrisy here. If you first boycott an ingredient – against the expert advice of sustainability experts around the world – and then realise that some of your products rely heavily on this very ingredient, then perhaps you shouldn’t manufacture the products? Either you have a consistent principled position, or you don’t.

This is a little bit like a vegetarian restaurant arguing, “We just had to use chicken this time, because we couldn’t get tofu, that’s okay isn’t it?”

Further, there are some true ‘weasel words’ in Walker’s post that indicate he’s got a bigger move on this going forward. Although stating “I haven’t changed my mind about palm oil”, that he notes “assurances from the industry that it really has cleaned up its act on deforestation – and we will be carefully monitoring its performance in the weeks and months ahead.”

But if he hasn’t changed his mind, why bother monitoring? What’s he leaving the door open for?

There are two reasons.

First, is the supply situation for sunflower oil. Yes, the global price for all major vegetable oils has skyrocketed; they generally track each other quite closely. These costs will be passed on to consumers. But the sunflower oil situation is slightly different, and likely to result in longer-term problems.

Around 70 per cent of the global crude sunflower oil exports come from Ukraine and Russia, with Ukraine making up around half of the export market. But, in terms of areas harvested and quantities produced they are on a roughly equal footing.

Consider that with additional Russian sanctions in place, that supply will continue to be taken out of Western markets even when freight problems are resolved. Further, around half of Ukraine’s production is in the east, with 30 per cent bordering Russia. Exports from this territory will also likely be taken from Western markets over the medium term.  

Second, in our view, Walker will need to switch to palm oil over the medium term as a result of this situation as there are – as he stated – no real alternatives for some of Iceland’s products.

The other avenue is keeping expensive non-palm alternatives and massively hiking prices that would eventually make his products uncompetitive in the UK marketplace.

This raises a bigger question: what are Western consumers willing to pay for? The hypocrisy of Walker insisting that he must continue to produce French fries is echoed in the Western consumer’s unwillingness to pay a premium for certified palm oil. So, if he isn’t committed, and nor are his customers, and if the move to ban palm oil hasn’t improved sales, what is this charade for?

Malaysian parolees: a risky path

The Malaysian government has announced that it will be seeking to plug some of the country’s labour shortages by amending laws to make it easier for parolees to participate in work programs.

Home Minister Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainudin told Malaysian news outlets that “It is expected that 80 per cent of the prisoners will be placed in industries to fill vacancies in the sector are often filled by foreign workers.”

The government is also expecting the move to reduce prison crowding and operational budgets for the prison system.

However, the Malaysian government should tread carefully on how it operates its program going forward. Although the country has ratified the ILO Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, as well as to the 1930 Forced Labour Convention, there are potential gaps for Malaysian authorities and employers that could leave the industry open to accusations of using prison labour as forced labour.

When this idea was first proposed in 2020, the Guardian – sponsored by labour advocacy group Humanity United – immediately published a story suggesting it could lead to forced labour. This is significant; the major allegations of the use of forced labour in China have centred on the use of prison labour. And importantly, assurance schemes such as the Better Cotton Initiative have not convinced US authorities or retailers of labour bona fides.

UK health services exploiting Southeast Asian workers?

UK health authorities are currently under fire for using ‘debt bondage’ clauses in labour contracts for migrant workers, particularly from countries in Southeast Asia such as the Philippines.

Health trusts that recruit international staff for the NHS and other facilities have been hiring large numbers of international staff as the UK faces a healthcare worker shortage. According to the Guardian, they have been charging workers as much as GBP14,000 if they attempt to leave their contracts early or switch to another provider.

According to one migrant nurse in the UK, “You can’t leave unless you pay, and if you leave you have to pay.”

The Guardian reporting also states:

“Parosha Chandran, a barrister and UN expert on human trafficking who helped shape the UK’s modern slavery laws, likened the clauses to “debt bondage”

“in some cases, workers are shown different contracts from the ones they sign when they arrive, or are only shown the contract when they get to the UK. Others may not fully understand the implications of the repayment terms, because they plan to stay in the UK for good – or have already spent thousands saving to come in the first place.”

Does this sound familiar? Precisely the same charges – rightly or wrongly — are levelled at recruitment firms across Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia, which then results in palm oil firms being accused of using slave labour.  

In no way does this make the behaviour acceptable. But with forced labour accusations being levelled in both the UK and US, Western nations need to get their own houses in order.