Part 2: Exclusive Interview with Malaysia’s Palm Oil Minister, Zuraida Kamaruddin


This week’s must read on palm oil is an exclusive sit down with Malaysia’s Palm Oil Minister, Zuraida Kamaruddin.
In the second installment of our two-part series, Minister Kamaruddin talks one of the biggest challenges facing the sector – accusation of labor and human rights violations.

This is the second article in a two-part series. 

Q: Malaysia is a recognised leader in palm oil sustainability. However, there has been criticism that there has not been enough progress on the rights of workers. How will this be redressed?

Do we have challenges related to labour issues in the palm oil sector? Yes, but we are working to improve governance and enforcement practices. The government has the tools to do so under the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification standard, and I will be considering the best way forward.

The MSPO standard is built on seven principles that form the general requirements of a management system framework. This, in turn, promotes the three pillars of sustainability – to be economically viable, socially acceptable and environmentally sound. The principles cover:

  • Management commitment and responsibility
  • Transparency
  • Compliance with legal requirements
  • Social responsibility, health, safety and employment conditions
  • Environment, natural resources, biodiversity and ecosystem services
  • Best practices
  • Development of new plantings

Each of the seven principles also has specific criteria and indicators that the Certification Bodies use during the audit process, to determine compliance and award certification.

In addition, the Ministry of Human Resources (MOHR) launched the Working for Workers (WFW) program in May of this year. This is a dedicated platform for over 15 million workers, primarily foreign workers, to submit complaints related to labour issues.

The WFW platform enable workers to report complaints online. The nature of complaints covers contract disputes; late payment of salary; being forced to work during leave; unfair dismissal; failure to report the employment of foreign workers; improper treatment; and employees being prevented from working from home while the Covid-19 Movement Control Order was in place.

This is an important tool for ensuring work place compliance with Malaysian laws. I have full confidence  in the Ministry of Human Resources to ensure this program succeeds.

At the same time, our largest exporters and government-linked companies have signed up to a range of standards and commitments to protect the interests of employees.

Q: The US State Department demoted Malaysia to Tier 3 in its Trafficking in Persons Report 2021. Is this a fair assessment?

No, it is unfair and an overly simplistic assessment. We will continue to work with the US government to address its concerns and set the record straight. At this juncture, any intervention from the Malaysian government should be focused on improving workers’ rights through legislation, enforcement and labour policies.

We hope for cooperation and goodwill, especially since Malaysia has renewed a strong commitment to addressing labour-related issues.

Q: You have dedicated a substantial part of your career to the advancement of women. Are you planning to extend this to the plantation sector?

Improving the rights of women – in particular, expanding female participation in Malaysian life – has been a key objective of my political career. I am proud to have founded the Institut Wanita Berdaya (Institute of Empowered Women) and the Women’s Institute for Research, Development & Advancement. I also serve as President of the Council of Malaysian Women Political Leaders and as Malaysia’s Country Ambassador for Women Political Leaders.

I look forward to working with ministry officials, the private sector, civil society and other key stakeholders to ensure that women working throughout the palm oil sector supply chain have the same rights and opportunities to succeed. I have also said that I would like to see more women leaders appointed to corporate boards and as heads of various agencies. Let me set an example that others can follow.

Since the palm oil industry has traditionally been a male-dominated one, I foresee some resistance to my ideas. However, the management consulting firm McKinsey – in a study themed ‘Delivering through Diversity 2018’ – revealed a positive correlation between having a big proportion of women leaders in large companies and the corporate financial performance. This was particularly so in senior executive roles, where the majority of strategic and operational decisions are made. Similarly, I believe the palm oil industry will reap the results of women’s participation and gender mainstreaming.

Q: How do you see these priorities applying to your role as Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities?

The plantation sector has made wonderful advancements for Malaysia, over many decades now. It has lifted millions out of poverty in rural areas and created jobs, generated tax revenues and rendered economic growth. In my considerable experience founding NGOs and charitable groups, especially the ones focused on women’s rights, I feel that we have an opportunity to bring some new ideas to the plantation sector.

I am very heartened and encouraged already from my initial conversations with palm oil companies and Ministry officials. There is clearly a strong collective willingness to support reform where needed. This will provide a strong basis for all stakeholders to work together to implement changes. Improving the palm oil community can only lead to the industry thriving at every level.