A palm oil worker carries palm plants

Palm oil has been in the news a lot lately, but the news hasn’t been good. From forest fires across Indonesia used to make way for new plantations to human and labor rights abuses, media scrutiny has uncovered the often troubling conditions associated with this almost ubiquitous oil. It has also uncovered worrying weaknesses in the voluntary mechanisms set up to promote palm oil sustainability. Add this to existing regulatory and enforcement gaps in countries where palm oil is often produced, and it is clear that these are troubling times for workers across the industry.

But the news isn’t all bleak. Earlier this year, Verité joined the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), an initiative that involves producers and many of the world’s leading environmental NGOs. We bring to POIG our years of experience on labor rights in supply chains as it pushes beyond the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to tackle the critical issues linked to the sector. Forced labor, the protection of migrant workers and decent work are all firmly on the POIG agenda, making it the most progressive constellation of actors in this space.

POIG is also growing. Last week, the Musim Mas Group joined the initiative and committed to implement the POIG Charter across its supply chain, including over 200,000 hectares of plantations globally. The company will align its sustainability policy with POIG standards and, most notably, implement a targeted labor risk assessment as well as third party verification. These are important steps forward for the Group.

They are also innovations for palm oil sustainability in general. Last week, during the 4th annual UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, Verité called for producers and traders to raise their game on workers’ rights. The industry must commit to better social and labor policies, where these are typically weak and ineffectual. It must implement policies in effective and systematic ways with due diligence involving targeted assessments reinforced by independent verification. We also desperately need more transparency, stakeholder engagement and a host of other innovations that are increasingly common in other sectors but negligible in palm oil. Industry reform is long overdue.

Some important steps have been taken this year. They are encouraging and we must celebrate each measure of progress, however small. Nevertheless, so much more still needs to be done. Let’s hope that 2016 brings more commitment, leadership and progress across the industry to push us past the tipping point of real sustainability in palm oil production and supply chains.

• For more information about Verité’s work on palm oil, contact Philip Hunter.

Click here for a resource that defines free and fair labor principles in palm oil production developed by an international coalition of foundations, unions, faith-based groups and NGOs, including Verité.