- RSPO is weak on labour rights in terms of consultation, technical standards and audits
- The current standards review provides an opportunity to change course on labour
- RSPO will need to do some heavy lifting if it is to meet international benchmarks
In our second blog leading up to the RSPO Roundtable next week, there’s another critical question facing RSPO as it moves forward: labour.
Labour has been a spectre over palm oil, particularly in Malaysia, and many other commodities and products around the world.
The European Union has moved to shore up tougher labour requirements; these still fall short of the high bar for compliance set by the US Government – as was demonstrated by US Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) seizures of several shipments of palm-related products. There are other moves to strengthen labour protections across the globe, primarily in Western nations.
What the CBP episode demonstrated is how weak RSPO actually is when it comes to labour standards. It’s worth remembering that RSPO started primarily as an environmental standard, even though it claimed a broader ambit on sustainability. As much as RSPO might aspire to meeting international benchmarks by incorporating references to ILO standards, the world of labour and social audits has its own history and an association with global labour movements that goes back decades. Attempting just to shoehorn labour into an environmental standard won’t work.
The question for RSPO is whether and how the standard can actually meet the new benchmarks being set in this new environment? As we pointed out earlier this week, the EU’s Deforestation Regulation poses problems for anything that isn’t identity preserved or segregated.
There are three aspects to how RSPO stacks up against global norms and other certification standards. First, in terms of how the standard was developed; second, the technical level, i.e. the indicators; and third, the credibility of the standard in the international context.
First, standard development.
The key principle underpinning labour rights among the labour movement globally is the tripartite relationship. i.e. the relationships between employees (and their representatives), employers and the government. This is more significant than anything else.
The RSPO formed its labour rights task force (LTF) in 2017. There’s not a great deal of information available regarding the task force, and whether members of unions (e.g. the Malaysian Trade Unions Congress) actually participated in standard development, nor the relevant government departments (e.g. Indonesia’s Ministry of Manpower).
Second is the technical aspects of the standard, and this relates to the point above.
A standard that doesn’t follow the tripartite approach is unlikely to meet the norms in the international labour community.
For example, with indicators such as forced and trafficked labour, there are 11 indicators recognised under ILO norms. RSPO contains most of these, but some are missing, such as: abuse of vulnerability, deception, restriction of movement and isolation.
There’s also a crucial aspect to the language of RSPO standards on labour that ultimately determines how it is audited. The ILO norm is that there should be “no evidence” of discrimination, for example. Whereas the RSPO standard requires the unit of certification to demonstrate that it has a policy and that it has been implemented. There’s a significant difference: one is positive compliance, the other is negative.
Third, is the credibility of the standard internationally. The battle between CBP and Malaysian exports showed – quite clearly – that the RSPO standard has very little weight in the eyes of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). It should be noted that CBP is a heavyweight on labour in US policy circles. It is law enforcement, rather than light-touch regulation. It makes border decisions on good tainted with slavery coming from all over the world on a daily basis and it uses a number of pre-existing benchmarks: RSPO is not one of them.
Why? Because it’s not a pure social audit along the lines of SEDEX SMETA (SEDEX Members Ethical Trade Audit) or GlobalGAP. These standards specialise in labour rights and have auditors that specialise in social audits – not environment.
So, what can RSPO do going forward, particularly within the context of its current standards review?
First, it needs to raise the prominence of labour groups – and not just NGOs. At last count there, appeared to be just one labour expert on a technical committee for the review, from the ILO. There do not appear to be any representatives from Indonesian or Malaysian labour groups, or the government. Again, this tripartite approach is critical.
Second, the language on prohibition in the standards review needs to be tougher. Finding clear blanket prohibition on forced and trafficked labour in the new draft standards is easier than it was. But how this manifests in an audit also needs to be clearer. It’s one thing to say ‘there is zero tolerance’ for trafficked labour, and another to say, ‘there shall be no evidence of’ trafficked labour when it comes to an audit. The revised MSPO standard, for example, has clear and specific language along these lines.
Third, the above changes to the standard, when they are introduced, need to be translated accordingly into auditor training, and the requirements for auditors when dealing with labour issues need to be stepped up. Current lead auditor requirements for RSPO mean that the social aspects of the audit can be undertaken by an auditor with literally zero experience in labour and social audits.
This last aspect is critical.
In short, RSPO needs to do three things:
1) Bring in more labour stakeholders at a higher level
2) Toughen up its language on labour in its standards
3) Ensure that this is translated into audit procedures
In the meantime, the recent revisions to the MSPO standard which only emerged early this year, have put MSPO far ahead of RSPO on labour. This is something MSPO got right from the get-go: they consulted with labour unions and government agencies, and this is reflected in the standard. Auditor training and qualification may be up to scratch, but it’s early days yet. RSPO has some heavy lifting to do.