U.S. Dept of Labor Claims Against Malaysian Palm Oil: Separating Fact from Fiction


The U.S. Department of Labor (DoL) is kicking off a new $5 million project in Malaysia to Combat Forced Labor and Child Labor in the Production of Goods in Malaysia.

The 4 ½ year project has been awarded to Social Accountability International (SAI) and Proforest – two NGOs with significant experience in this subject area. Proforest in particular also has significant experience working inside Malaysia.

MPOC is supportive of the project and submitted a letter of support in favour of Proforest and SAI’s application. The goals of the project align with the goals that the Malaysian palm oil sector.

The Malaysian industry, alongside the Malaysian government, has made significant progress towards these goals already, including ratifying ILO Protocols; committing to ending recruitment fees; and actively supporting trade unions and other workers’ groups.

The engagement of U.S. authorities in this area can bring positive impetus to Malaysia’s existing and ongoing reforms. However, as the project moves ahead, it is important to remember that Malaysia’s partnership with U.S. authorities, including the DoL, must remain one of honest dialogue. DoL has spoken some harsh words about the Malaysian palm oil sector in recent times, and these deserve sober assessment. Where the DoL claims are inaccurate – which is at times clearly the case – they should be corrected.

Hard Truths

In particular, the DoL’s assessment under the TVPRA (Trafficking Victims Protection Act) requires considerable scrutiny. This assessment produces a ‘list of goods’ that the USDOL “has reason to believe” might be produced with either child labour or forced labour. The USDOL states the list “is intended to raise public awareness about child labor and forced labor around the world, and to promote and inform efforts to address them.” Malaysian palm oil has been included on this list since 2014.

The justification provided by DoL appears to mostly be based on decades-old desk research gleaned from media sources and advocacy campaigns (e.g by NGOs criticial of palm oil), in some cases paid for by U.S. tax dollars, judging by a review of the bibliography and source materials published by DoL.

The methodology for the TVPRA list is considerably weaker than other U.S. assessments such as Executive Order (EO) 13126, on the Prohibition of Acquisition of Products Produced by Forced or Indentured Child Labor. The Executive Order’s goal is to “publish a list of products (EO List), identified by their country of origin, that the three Departments have a reasonable basis to believe might have been mined, produced, or manufactured by forced or indentured child labor.” It is extremely important to note that neither Malaysia, nor Malaysian palm oil products, are included in the latest versions of this EO list.

To summarise – the more detailed assessment under the Executive Order is less critical of Malaysia, compared with the media- and NGO-based assessment of the TVPRA. The median age of the sources used in the DoL/TVPRA bibliography is 10 years, which raises further concerns that it may be out-of-date reflecting a historic concern at best, rather than one that exists in present day.

This matters greatly not only to Malaysian palm oil, but to all exporters to the U.S., because it should be expected that DoL would recognise the risk in relying on openly-biased, and outdated, sources for their reporting and assessments. That is not a sound basis on which to take decisions affecting millions of Malaysian farmers.

Moving Forward

The new US DoL funded project with SAI and ProForest must ensure that the goals they set out are rooted in on the ground facts, and not desk research. It appears that the DoL-funded project with SAI and Proforest will take such a constructive and pragmatic approach, which is welcome. This approach should be extended to other current activities and future assessments of Malaysian palm oil, including the TVPRA list and others.

This is not just a question for the DoL, and the U.S. authorities more widely, but also for others. Valued partners funding projects in Malaysia include the European Union, and the United Kingdom and MPOC looks forward to cooperating also with these partners. The same principles should apply to all, as to the U.S. DoL: projects should be cooperative and constructive, provide actual on-the-ground analysis and any claims and allegations must be able to withstand detailed scrutiny.  The fact that a report, or allegation, carries the imprint of a particular government does not outweigh facts and data.