In the 35 degree Sumatran heat, a plantation worker tends to the neat rows of palm. Using his machete he carefully cuts back weeds and clears space for this latest crop. He spends every morning tending to hectares of these plants, often helped by his wife and their family including the children when they’re not at school. There is just too much work for one person to manage alone.
This is part of the reality of the independent palm oil supply chain, which includes large plantations and mills as well as smallholder plantations, in Indonesia and elsewhere in the world.
Just two countries account for nearly 90% of the world’s palm oil production: Malaysia and Indonesia. In those places, it is not uncommon on plantations to find children working in dangerous conditions, men using pesticides without the proper protective equipment and women exposed to tenuous contractual and payment conditions.
In Indonesia, local and migrant workers from other parts of the country are attracted by opportunities of work and wages. In Malaysia, these work opportunities attract immigrant workers, from countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Indonesia, some of which are undocumented. For these workers the reality is often very different to the environment they expect to find, as they sometimes find out when their pay is deducted for expenses they expected to be covered or their passports are taken away from them by the plantation manager or mill operators.
Promoting human rights
Whilst environmental issues such as deforestation in palm oil producing regions have gained attention over the past several years, the social impacts of the industry have remained largely hidden. However, this is starting to change. Recent reports from NGOs including Amnesty International and the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) have shone a light on labour abuses in the industry.
These issues are endemic to the palm oil supply chain. In order to systematically address them, strong and collective action is needed to transform the industry and raise standards. This is not something that one company, or one NGO, or even one government can tackle alone. We must work together.
For food and beverage producers, responsible sourcing of ingredients is key to tackling the issues. For Nestlé, the journey towards 100% responsible sourcing of ingredients began back in 2010. At this time, we started mapping our agricultural supply chains, partnering with third party experts and developing our ‘no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation' (NDPE) policy (pdf, 200Kb) and Responsible Sourcing Standard (pdf, 2Mb). We also launched a public commitment to zero deforestation by 2020 (pdf, 200Kb).
Responsible sourcing of our raw materials is essential to ensuring a sustainable future for our business, people and the planet. Working with The Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR), The Forest Trust (TFT) and Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), a key supplier, Nestlé carried out the industry’s first collaborative human rights impact assessment in its upstream supply chain in 2017, focusing specifically on the labour rights of workers. Over 200 people, including mill and plantation workers, smallholder farmers and members of local communities were interviewed by the DIHR and TFT teams.
The assessment builds on a strong foundation of work undertaken over the last 8 years, focused on mapping and engaging our palm oil supply chain and individual suppliers to assess and address social and environmental issues. In recognising the continued challenges faced in addressing systemic labour issues, we decided to undertake the assessment to get a better understanding of how to improve our ongoing engagement approach.
The findings of the assessment report have reaffirmed a number of systemic human rights issues and their root causes, helping Nestlé to better define ways to address them.
Following the assessment, Nestlé has launched an Action Plan on Labour Rights in Palm Oil Supply Chains, focused on tackling labour rights issues in our supply chain. It focuses on addressing a number of labour issues, including labour rights abuses, health and safety in mills and on plantations, and child labour as described above.
The Action Plan represents the next step in our work to achieve a responsible supply chain, building on our existing responsible sourcing commitments, by strengthening the way in which we address labour issues in palm oil. Explicit focus on building and strengthening effective industry collaborations is a core part of the work we have ahead of us, recognising that we cannot do this alone.
We know that the journey to achieving sector-wide transformation is a long one, with much more work to do. In addition to working with partners and suppliers to address the issues in our own supply chains, we must also work across the industry in order to address the systemic issues we see across different sourcing regions. By working more collaboratively across the palm oil sector, on targeted system-wide interventions, we believe that we can realise the change we want to see.
You can read the report in full and the details of our Nestlé Action Plan on Labour Rights in the Palm Oil Supply Chains (pdf, 400Kb). Find out more about our commitment on Labour Rights in Agricultural Supply Chains (pdf, 1.5Mb) , and Responsible Sourcing objectives and progress.