U.S. Dept of Labor’s Malaysian Palm Oil Assessment: Hammer Searching For A Nail?


In this second blog in our four-part series, we look at how the U.S. Department of Labor has approached the Malaysian palm oil sector.

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) undertakes assessments of slave labour and child labour around the world.

One of these is the Trafficking Victims Prevention Act ‘list of goods’ that the DOL “has reason to believe” might be produced with child labour or forced labour.

Malaysian palm oil is included on this list for forced labour and child labour. To arrive at its assessments, the DOL relies on articles that appear in the media and reports from NGOs.

The DOL report includes a bibliography that it has used to make assessment. But there are some major flaws in both the assessment, and the background materials used.

With regards to the assessment, there is no specific claim made against palm oil. The broad claim is that officials have “reason to believe” that palm oil might be produced with slave or child labour.

This is problematic: with no specific accusation, the claim cannot be assessed and the problem cannot be addressed.

Even if DOL sticks to this view in their response to our analysis, this then leads us to evaluate the materials that their assessment is based on, including a substantial collection of materials from news outlets and NGOs.

An examination of the sources used indicate some significant methodological problems. For example, the median age of the materials is around 10 years old, i.e. from 2012 and often earlier. Some of the sources used hardly mention palm oil at all.

Here’s an example. One of the articles cited is more than 15 years old. It covers the tragic death of a worker – in an unspecified industry. The worker’s employers were eventually charged with murder.

In a separate part of the story, it describes an unrelated group of contracted workers who were required to spend ‘a few days’ at an oil palm plantation. But the story does not detail their treatment at the plantation.

Similarly, another article cited is 14 years old. It covers in depth the treatment of workers in electronics manufacturing. Palm oil is only mentioned in passing in a list of commodities, with no specific accusations or outlining of any incidents.  When discussing commodities, the story is more specific about the supply chains in rubber.

The question is how these articles contribute to a “reason to believe” that palm oil could be made with slave labour or child labour – particularly when these articles are more than a decade old, and often refer only tangentially to palm oil. Additionally, it is public knowledge that numerous private sector initiatives, including DOL’s own initiatives in Malaysia, have been introduced to prevent labour abuse in supply chains.

The DOL report seems like a hammer searching for a nail.