A growing number of palm oil companies are improving practices when it comes to workers’ rights
For decades, keeping foreign workers’ passports has been a common practice across many industries in Malaysia. But things are slowly changing.
In the palm oil space, employers keep passports for security purposes – to prevent loss and damage – as well as to prevent workers absconding. Passports are also kept to make administrative processes, such as renewing contracts, efficient.
The issue of lost passports or workers absconding costs companies money and time, especially when reporting to the authorities. It also affects the operational efficiency of an industry that is already facing worker shortages. At the same time, workers who don’t have their passports are vulnerable to being stopped by authorities and are unable to access a basic human right – the ability to move freely.
However, awareness is increasing regarding passport retention being an indicator of forced labour and a breach to many customers’ requirements. Companies are starting to understand that in order to sell to international markets, respect for workers’ rights is key.
We are working with companies who have been working to tackle human rights issues by returning workers’ passports.
FELDA Global Ventures (FGV)
In July 2015, the Wall Street Journal released an article accusing FGV of human rights violations in its plantations. FGV subsequently launched an investigation and began working with external parties such as ourselves and Wild Asia to verify the allegations and identify gaps for improvement.
Among the issues FGV sought to address was passport retention. But this was no easy feat, given that the company employs between 20,000 and 30,000 foreign workers – including those FGV employs directly, as well as those employed by contractors who work on FGV plantations.
They drew up procedures on how to return passports and install lockers across hundreds of estates around the country and decided to do this over a three-year period. A pilot, conducted in May 2016, involved the return of over 700 passports and the installation of lockers across four estates in Perak, Johor and Pahang.
In October 2016, we partnered with FGV to look at gaps in their sustainability policy and suggest a plan to help solve key issues, like forced and bonded labour, ethical recruitment, employment contracts, wages, and health and safety. To come up with a plan, we were involved in desktop reviews, field visits, surveys and discussions in a number of FGV’s operations. FGV considered our recommendations and worked with internal and external stakeholders for further input. Accordingly, FGV’s Social Compliance and Human Rights Action Plan was approved in mid-2017.
In 2013, we supported Wilmar in formulating its ground-breaking NDPE (No Deforestation, Peat and Exploitation) policy. As part of this policy, Wilmar committed to respect the rights of workers and deal with document retention in its own operations, as well as those of its suppliers.
Since June 2016, Wilmar has been returning foreign workers’ passports in its own operations. The agribusiness is also in the process of installing lockers for workers across all its plantations. Workers keep their locker keys and log in to a book when retrieving their passports. By November 2017, Wilmar plans to install about 10,000 lockers and return all passports in its East Malaysian plantations.
Small and medium-sized mills
Since 2016, we have been supporting transformation at a few small and medium-sized mills that supply our members, Wilmar and Fuji Oil. These mills, located in southern Peninsular Malaysia, have agreed to return passports to their foreign workers and provide them with lockers. For now, they are doing this in batches – either focusing on a percentage of workers in plantations they own (because most mill workers are Malaysian) or focusing on one mill among several owned by their parent company. After engagements with us, they have also drafted social policies that promote respect for workers’ rights. Find out more in our film below.
One of the main differentiating factors that allowed transformation to take place was the staff’s receptive and proactive attitude. A common misconception is that change requires resources that only the big boys have. However, these instances show that smaller or medium-sized players, which make up a large proportion of suppliers in this area, can also join this journey of change.
While change was initially difficult, continuous engagement slowly broke down barriers and built trust with people on the ground. Attitudes also softened when we chose a route of compromise and creating win-win situations. Instead of expecting wholesale change, a mutually respectful attitude opened doors and allowed companies to take ownership of the change at their own pace.
However, this transformation didn’t happen in a vacuum. Rather, it occurred against the backdrop of the value the companies put in their workers and the good practices they already had – such as good employer-employee relationships, fair wages and comfortable facilities.
It’s encouraging that more companies in Malaysia are improving practices when it comes to workers’ rights. Now that passport issues have been addressed by some, we would like to see others have the confidence to follow suit.