An amazing thing happened last week at the annual gathering of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) taking place this week in the Indonesian city of Medan on the island of Sumatra. Over 3,000 laborers marched and surrounded the RSPO meeting in a colorful and peaceful demonstration as speaker after speaker criticized the harsh and unfair working conditions across Indonesia’s palm oil plantations.
Most of the protesters were plantation and industrial laborers from North Sumatra, but laborers and community representatives from Riau and Jambi joined in solidarity to protest controversial palm oil giant Wilmar.
As they arrived at the entrance to Medan’s International Convention Center where this year’s RSPO is taking place, police and private security guards gathered between the growing crowd and closed the gates leading into the hotel. As a tropical downpour pounded the gathering, RSPO members and participants pushed against the upscale hotel’s glass walls to take in the commotion unfolding outside.
The protest and rally accomplished an important first step, pressuring the RSPO into accepting a meeting with labor representatives. RSPO Secretary General Darrel Webber and RSPO Indonesia Director Desi Kusumadewi met with the labor delegation, led by Aliansi Serbundo’s (Indonesian Trade Union Alliance) coordinator, Herwin Nasution.
At its heart, the labor statement attempts to address the increasing disparity between the growing palm oil industry and the laborers who drive its production under poor and exploitative working conditions.
Poor and exploitative working conditions covers a lot of ground unfamiliar to those used to workplace and safety requirements in America or Europe. For example, palm oil laborers are forced to pay for their own basic tools and safety equipment (e.g. shoes, boots, masks, gloves) or to simply go without. Women, who are often positioned as pesticide sprayers, have only pieces of cloth to cover their face to protect them from toxic chemicals. Fresh water for workers to drink and bathe is also often unavailable, leaving them to rely on contaminated water. Hours are harsh, with workers required to be in their positions before dawn or face sanctions or punishments.
These problems must be addressed. A primary demand of Aliansi Serbundo is for the RSPO to establish a labor working group and ensure labor representation within it, as labor or union representative are currently nonexistent within the decision making structure of the RSPO.
Organizers also demand the elimination of outsourcing, where companies outsource recruitment and working relations to a third party contractor. Outsourcing allows companies to claim they are not directly hiring laborers, skirting Indonesian employment laws and keeping workers in a “casual” day laborer status for multiple years. This happens despite the fact that Indonesian law requires employers to promote them to permanent status after 3 months.
Outsourcing also creates a revolving door of responsibility. Following RAN’s profile of KLK labor abuses in 2010, KLK offered to cut the contractor, but assumed no responsibility for forced labor on its plantations. However, jumping between contractors who are all abusing labor law and workers rights simply means that the contractors play hide and seek with the NGO’s and government agencies attempting to enforce Indonesian labor law. Nobody takes responsibility, and when one contractor is cut, another arises to take its place.
RSPO and its members will need to commit to higher standards of working conditions that will minimize the chance of labor abuses and commit to being accountable for the workers that are involved in their production process. These standards need to be transferable operationally to ensure that labor practices are being improved and their rights respected.
Workers are also demanding an end to unachievable production targets. Contractors craftily use production goals which are unachievable for a solo workers, forcing the worker to recruit others to help him or her fulfill quotas. Often this means wives and children are working as well without actually getting paid. Despite thousands of hours in the field, women and children can be considered ‘invisible’ as their contribution to the palm oil production are never formally counted.
After delivering the statement to the RSPO, the rally continued their route to the North Sumatran Governor’s office, where they are scheduled to negotiate a government-targeted demand set.
The labor conditions in the palm oil industry are complex. It’s not just about eliminating child and forced labor, but transforming the systems that have allowed it to happen in the first place. Including principles and criteria on labor within the RSPO and adopting Aliansi Serbundo’s demands is only the first step in this direction. But it will require a bigger commitment from the RSPO and greater grassroots coordination and inclusion to really make it happen.