For the past few years, we have been working in Malaysia on the issue of bonded and forced labour in palm oil supply chains. Having seen similar issues in the pulp and paper sector, we are now looking at how to improve practices in this industry.
In July 2018, The Forest Trust (TFT) and Nestlé organised a workshop on forced and bonded labour to raise awareness on fair labour practices among its direct packaging suppliers. Nestlé has zero tolerance for forced labour and requires all its sourcing partners to comply not only with government regulations but also with its Responsible Sourcing Standard, which include requirements on human rights.
Other participants to the workshop included representatives from SUHAKAM (the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia), the Malaysian Ministry of Human Resources, as well as non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
Since the amendment of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons & Smuggling of Migrants (ATIPSOM) Act in 2010, forced and bonded labour has become a priority in Malaysia with growing efforts by the government and the business sector alike to address the issue. As a result of these efforts, Malaysia was taken out of the US Trafficking in Persons report’s ‘Tier 2 watch list’ in 2017.
Forced labour is a complex issue, which is often little understood by pulp and paper producers. Since 2011, we have visited more than 120 suppliers in palm oil, pulp and paper, and rubber supply chains across Malaysia. This work has taught us that most suppliers understand that locking up workers or using threats of violence to force them to work is a clear form of forced labour. However, other issues related to forced labour, like withholding workers’ passports and recruitment fees, are still widespread and not always understood as forms of forced labour.
We have since sought to collaborate with companies like Nestlé to find innovative and effective ways to raise standards in suppliers’ operations. One of the biggest hurdles we face is the lack of understanding of what constitutes forced labour and to what extent it is the responsibility of suppliers to ensure fair labour practices.
Are responsible sourcing policies binding to suppliers, even if they belong to buyers like Nestlé? How do these policies relate to third-party suppliers, which may have no such commitments within their operations? What are the legal obligations for companies and their supply chains when it comes to responsible sourcing policies and forced labour? Where do we draw the line?
These were some of the questions asked and answered during the workshop, which was a platform to get all players within the industry to understand key definitions of forced labour and mitigate risks across the pulp and paper supply chain.
While raising awareness is key, the next step is to visit prioritised suppliers to understand issues and drive change on the ground. Ultimately, the aim is to bring scalable solutions to the pulp and paper industry and help suppliers meet companies’ responsible sourcing expectations.
Since January 2019, TFT has become Earthworm Foundation.