Updated at 6 p.m. ET on 2020-07-08
A Malaysian palm oil producer defended itself Wednesday over allegations that it used child and forced labor on its plantations, and said it had progressed in improving workplace practices, after an anti-trafficking group urged U.S. authorities to ban imports of the company’s products.
The Sime Darby Plantation (SDP) firm said it was not given an opportunity to respond to allegations raised by Liberty Shared in a petition filed with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. The Hong Kong-based anti-trafficking NGO had filed the petition on April 20 and posted an update along with a 17-page summary of the petition on its website earlier this week.
“We believe over the years we have made genuine progress in improving our labor practices on the ground through various initiatives and collaborations with multiple partners and NGOs,” SDP said in a statement released Wednesday.
“We wish to point out that the petition was submitted without soliciting any feedback from our company,” it added. “Currently, SDP has access only to the petition summary which provides issues that were raised without any details on the interviews that were conducted.”
Liberty Shared said the petition, which it did not make public, is “approximately 50 pages in length with over 60 supporting documents.” The NGO said it had interviewed workers over the “past few years,” including some who were interviewed multiple times over the past year. Liberty Shared said it had also contacted “experts from civil society” and reviewed publicly available resources and audit reports.
In its request that the U.S. ban imports of palm oil products made by Sime Darby, Liberty Shared alleged that workers were subjected to abuses on the job.
“For example, workers described the imposition of arbitrary penalties, threat of and actual sexual harassment, physical threats and abuse, various and inconsistent deductions in pay, varying conditions of accommodation, and fees charged for basic facilities,” it said in the summary of its petition.
Children were among those who suffered, Liberty Shared claimed.
“Local workers reported that, as recently as less than four years ago, children of local plantation workers were used by a plantation manager and (foreman) to place rat poison at the foot of the palm oil trees,” the NGO said.
“The workers explain that the (foreman) had supported the use of children for this task but then the manager who had approved this activity departed. The new manager did not approve of this practice and it was stopped.”
The NGO said the new manager had since left the plantation and workers feared that children would again be involved in harmful practices.
Citing U.S. law, Liberty Shared argued that SDP’s products could be seized and the importers be made liable for criminal investigation.
Section 307 of the 1930 Tariff Act “prohibits the importation of merchandise mined, produced or manufactured, wholly or in part, in any foreign country by forced labor or indentured child labor – including forced child labor. Such merchandise is subject to exclusion and/or seizure, and may lead to a criminal investigation of the importer(s),” it said.
In response, SDP said officials were willing to engage with the NGO.
“In the spirit of openness, transparency and collaboration that SDP has always upheld, we intend to engage with Liberty Shared to further understand these allegations in detail to enable us to conduct a thorough and immediate investigation and take corrective action as the findings may warrant,” the company said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Customs agency said it welcomed the petition.
“CBP [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] welcomes and evaluates actionable information concerning allegations of forced labor from a variety of sources, including the trade community, non-governmental organizations, the media, and the public. This information, in combination with CBP and U.S. Government findings, is essential to identifying products made with forced labor and preventing their entry into the United States,” the spokesman told BenarNews.
Malaysian NGO Tenaganita, which is involved in anti-forced labor activism welcomed the petition, according to a spokesperson.
“Yes we are aware, there has been evidence of this over the years. We are glad that they have proceeded with this,” the unidentified spokesperson told BenarNews.
In August 2019, Tenaganita urged another Malaysian palm oil producer, FGV Holdings, to review its conduct after a separate group of NGOs – International Labor Rights Forum, Rainforest Action Network and SumOfUs – filed a similar petition with U.S. Customs.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the country’s Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities told BenarNews that members were discussing their response and a statement would be issued.
The ministry last week announced that it would be taking legal action with the World Trade Organization to challenge the European Union’s restrictions on palm oil-based biofuels, citing the latter’s “anti-palm oil campaign” as a discriminatory policy.
In March 2019, the 28-nation European bloc said palm oil should be phased out of renewable transportation fuels by 2030 over concerns that the plantations contribute to deforestation.
Malaysia, which produced 20.5 million tons in 2019, is the world’s second largest palm oil producing country behind neighbor Indonesia.