Today, the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) is releasing the findings of an analysis that uncovers significant shortcomings in the data and sources cited, and used, by U.S. authorities in their criticism of the labour situation in Malaysia’s palm oil sector. The analysis finds that the data and evidence presented by U.S. authorities, and the sources themselves, deserve significant scrutiny.
Upon releasing the analysis, Larry Soon, Chairman of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council and Member of the Malaysian Parliament made the following statement:
“Our analysis finds that many of the U.S. authorities’ claims against Malaysia are poorly-sourced and have no basis in data or fact.
“This requires urgent bilateral consultations between Malaysia and the U.S. authorities ahead of the planned annual updates to the reports conducted by the U.S. Department’s of Labor and the State Department. We hope that this can be achieved as part of the new Malaysia-U.S. dialogue established during the U.S.-ASEAN Summit.
“For the avoidance of doubt – the Malaysian palm oil community accepts that there have been shortcomings in Malaysia’s regulatory regime around labour rights. But transparency and reform works both ways: where claims are false they should be withdrawn.”
The Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) has undertaken a close assessment of a number of the source materials cited by the U.S. Department of Labor (DoL), U.S. Department of State (State), and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Customs & Border Protection (CBP). The sources themselves, and the data and evidence they present, deserve significant scrutiny. Our research uncovers significant shortcomings in the data and sources cited, and used, by these U.S. authorities:
•Old Data: Much of the data provided by sources such as NGOs, or petitioner organisations, are out-of-date (in some cases by almost 40 years) or are not applicable to the specific complexities of the Malaysian palm oil sector.
•Glaring Omissions: The U.S. Department of Labor’s assessment of the palm oil sector relies on significantly outdated sources and datasets, and fails to take into account initiatives undertaken by the private sector in terms of preventative action.
•Misleading Accusations: The U.S. Department of Labor claims widespread forced child labour across Malaysia’s palm oil sector. However, the research cited and used to make these claims finds no evidence of widespread forced child labour that violates international norms.
•Bias: There is reliance in several instances on reports by lobby groups that are explicitly opposed to palm oil in South East Asia. Using such reports as source documentation is not serious public policy, given the pre-existing bias built into those organisations. This approach undermines the claim that the findings by the U.S. authorities are taken from independent and evidence-based groups. Moreover, it undermines the goals of rooting out forced labour.
•Failure to Acknowledge Progress: The U.S. State Department’s assessment similarly fails to acknowledge the work undertaken by the private sector to establish better practices, including NGO collaboration where government policies have not kept up to date with global benchmarks.
Progress is Being Made
• On 21ˢᵗ March, the Malaysian Government ratified International Labour Organization (ILO) Protocol 29 on Forced Labour.
• On the sidelines of the U.S. –ASEAN Summit, Malaysia’s Human Resources Minister Datuk Seri M. Saravanan, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs Thea Lee, and the U,S. Customs and Border Protection’s Executive Assistant Commissioner AnnMarie Highsmith announced that the two countries would form a committee to address forced labour, including via policy formulation. The committee will meet every three months.
• The Malaysian government announced that amendments to the Trade Unions Act would be tabled before parliament in July. Reforms to the Trade Unions Act have been a key ask of the U.S., and international community with regards to labour issues in Malaysia for many years.
• The Malaysian Palm Oil Certification Council (MPOCC) recently announced new revised standards – the MSPO 2021 series. The new MSPO standards addresses forced or trafficked labour in alignment with the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s 11 indicators of forced labour amongst other things. One key difference: the update to the standard places a new, clearer and declared responsibility on the certified company when it comes to contracted workers. The MSPO requirements provide no ambiguity in terms of requirements towards workers. Simply, a sub- contracted worker for a company is treated the same as a direct employee, and the certified company bears all responsibility.
• The Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA) – a trade association representing the largest palm oil companies – recently announced the Responsible Employment Charter that sets out multiple other reforms that the private sector is undertaking to demonstrate its good labour practices – such as ending recruitment fees for foreign workers, among many other examples.