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Opinion

Responsible Palm Oil Production: Guidance document links promise to progress

Palm oil is the world’s most popular vegetable oil, widely used in everyday products ranging from cooking oil to cosmetics. Since 1990, global palm oil consumption has quintupled, and demand is projected to double again by 2030. Without realizing it, most of us use or consume a product containing palm oil every day, whether as an additive to our lip balm or an ingredient in our morning doughnut.

This growing reliance on inexpensive agricultural inputs comes at a high cost to workers and the communities where palm oil is grown and processed. Long recognized for its negative environmental impacts, in recent years NGOs and prominent media reports have shed light on the extremely hazardous working conditions on palm oil plantations and in mills, including forced and child labor. Practices associated with forced labor have included debt bondage, confiscation of passports, physical confinement, withholding of wages, false terms of employment, and threats of physical and sexual violence. These practices have even been documented on the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)-certified plantations.

Even those plantation and mill workers not subject to forced labor face harsh working conditions and challenges to their basic human and labor rights. Understanding this reality, it is imperative that those companies that source, trade, or produce palm oil embrace their responsibility to ensure that the rights of palm oil workers are respected and that they have the opportunity to earn a decent livelihood for themselves and their families.

To help make this a reality, today an unprecedented and diverse alliance of international human rights and environmental organizations released Free and Fair Labor in Palm Oil Production: Principles and Implementation Guidance. This guide is the first of its kind and details comprehensive recommendations to implement fair labor practices in the palm oil sector. It is based on the frameworks enshrined in the International Labor Organization’s core conventions and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and it builds on the existing standard established by the RSPO. It is not intended as a new code of conduct or certifiable standard, but rather as a resource to provide concrete and practical guidance on implementing responsible palm oil production.

The agenda is ambitious, and effective implementation is a long-term proposition that requires the establishment of interim milestones and meaningful, ongoing stakeholder engagement. But by agreeing to understand the problem and invest in concrete solutions, like those outlined in this guide, together we can make the world a little better for the millions of workers who literally help bring our daily bread.

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