No political will to end forced labour, says activist

US-based group Liberty Shared has condemned forced labour in the Malaysian oil palm industry.

PETALING JAYA: A recent statement condemning forced labour in the Malaysian oil palm industry has prompted a migrant rights activist to voice a loss of hope of seeing reform in the sector.

North-South Initiative director Adrian Pereira said he no longer believed Malaysian authorities had it in them to fix issues concerning forced labour.

“It looks like there is no political will for the reforms to happen,” he told FMT.

The US-based group Liberty Shared issued a statement on Wednesday condemning Sime Darby Plantation for its alleged failure to address issues of forced labour.

It said it was not convinced that Sime Darby and FGV Holdings had implemented sufficient corporate governance, risk management and internal controls to supervise and manage plantation managers effectively, thus putting vulnerable workers at risk of forced labour.

The group had earlier petitioned US authorities to ban the import of palm oil produced by Sime Darby following alleged evidence of child and forced labour on its plantations.

The petition followed two others filed against FGV Holdings by a law firm and coalition of NGOs.

Pereira called for increased transparency in corporate governance and said migrant workers should be empowered with knowledge of their rights and must also have a safe mechanism for reporting labour abuses.

In its petition, Liberty Shared said Sime Darby was guilty of withholding wages and retaining workers’ passports and had failed to provide adequate living conditions. Such transgressions satisfy the International Labour Organisation’s forced labour indicators.

Sime Darby has denied the allegations.

Liberty Shared said last month it conducted interviews with local and foreign workers over two years and had consulted civil society groups and scrutinised public disclosures, audit reports and sustainability initiatives before submitting its petition.

Malaysia is the world’s second largest producer and exporter of palm oil and foreign workers make up 70% of the industry’s labour force.

Various media outlets reported in June that the Covid-19 pandemic had left the industry with a shortage of workers, a problem that could cost farmers as much as RM11.7 billion in lost production.