The message drummed out for the past year through the enormously expensive PR blitz by the Oil Palm Industry is that all criticism of its practices are made-up lies formulated by evil NGOs, secretly paid by rival industries like soya bean and sugar beet.
Any Malaysian who dares to suggest that there might be some truth behind the reasons why Europe in particular has entered a drive to make sure that palm oil products are sustainably sourced is denounced as ‘unpatriotic’.
This highly aggressive refusal to address criticism and determination to use big bucks to discredit those concerned about human rights and the environment is typical of big businesses that have found themselves called out on damaging practices.
The knee jerk reaction is to call in expensive PR companies to tell them what they want to hear, which is that they can bulldoze and discredit the criticism as long as they are paid enough cash. This is how the fossil fuel industries have acted, also tobacco, chemicals and pharmaceuticals and so many more.
The same deep pockets then make sure to get government and decision-makers on side by lobbying and influencing them as hard as hard cash can buy.
By now, these corporates ought to have worked out that in the long run such snarling and deceitful tactics are almost always disastrously counterproductive, leaving industries of this kind with their reputations in tatters.
It is one thing to be called out for doing damaging and illegal things but to respond with aggressive and deceptive denial ultimately does ten times as much reputational damage as the true facts are inevitably exposed. However, there is so often a learning curve for those who made easy money (usually by acting in a criminally irresponsible fashion) and have got used to employing it to get their way.
The Swiss food giant Nestle has learnt this reality the hard way and now often opts for admitting to failings and making efforts to improve. In the process it has on this occasion landed the Malaysian palm plantation deniers in the soup over the latest damning report, this time by a Swiss NGO, which has focused on the long neglected issue of mistreatment of mass migrant labour in Malaysia’s vast plantations.
The nearest equivalent to what is happening on oil palm plantations today is possibly the indentured labour used by the British on sugar plantations some two centuries ago – generations before the world reached some basic agreements on human rights. Or maybe the present day cotton fields of Uzbekistan, considered a world atrocity.
The abuse of migrant labour is in danger of becoming Malaysia’s national shame.
The report, published today by the NGO Solidar Switzerland belatedly draws attention to the huge numbers of these undocumented migrant workers who are routinely exploited, particularly in East Malaysian plantations, many being from Indonesia.
The pay on these plantations is so lamentable that few locals are willing to engage in the back breaking labour for so little return and Sarawak Report has already documented instances of what are believed to be far from isolated practices of passports being removed leaving underpaid and trapped migrants effectively slaves.
According to a summary of today’s report:
Swiss firms import one-third of their palm oil needs from Malaysia, much of which comes from Sabah, a state occupying the northeast part of the island of Borneo.
There most of the difficult and dangerous work on plantations is carried out by Indonesian migrant workers, of whom around 840,000 are undocumented.
It reported that around 50,000-200,000 children live with their parents on these plantations and help their families to survive by picking fruit and other work. The children born on plantations are often stateless, as Malaysia does not issue birth certificates to the children of migrant workers. They have no access to public schools or medical care. [Swiss Info]
There are instances where children on plantations do receive education – Sime Darby has promoted itself for doing so. However, it has been this industry’s long held dirty secret that it employs millions of migrant labourers many in appalling conditions on illegally low pay.
For as long as migrant children are working on such plantations without access to education and medical care this industry has no right whatsoever to rail and complain against its critics and foreign customers who are seeking assurances of better practices both towards workers and the environment before they will buy more of their products.
The industry deniers are aggressively demanding that European customers should turn a blind eye and effectively endorse and participate in their ugly abuse rather than attempt to use their influence to ensure child labour and other appalling practices are abolished including irresponsible use of pesticides and fertilisers and the buring of peat soil.
Saturation propaganda may manage to convince domestic listeners that all is well with what they do, however it won’t wash with Europeans for as long as reports like this are being published – and effectively conceded by the likes of the super-brand Nestle to be accurate.
As one of the biggest global purchasers of palm oil, Swiss based Nestle, has admitted in this report that it is not able to vouch for well over half of the product it obtains from these Malaysian plantations – although the company says it is trying to do better on its sourcing:
The food giant says it has improved its sourcing of palm oil. In 2018, 54% of the palm oil volumes were traceable to plantation, 91% traceable to mill, and 64% “responsibly sourced.
In short, the food giant admits that in Malaysia as of last year only 64% of 54% of its palm oil could be both traced back to the plantation and found to be responsibly sourced – around a mere quarter of the total purchased.
The report continues:
The NGO says Nestlé buys large quantities of palm oil from Sabah, including from the factories that process palm oil from the plantations it investigated.
“As a result, Nestlé and other food companies benefit from low wages and poor working conditions on the ground, which are at the root of child labour.”
“Although Nestlé claims it does not tolerate forced and child labour in its supply chain, these worst forms of exploitation remain widespread. This shows once again that the fight against human rights and labour violations is still too low a priority for some multinationals.”
This is the same week that Malaysians have been confronted with hard, acrid-smelling evidence that this industry’s continous and aggressive denials that it has damaged the environment through bad practices are also a certain lie.
Malaysia has continued day after day to remain stuck under a toxic smog caused by peat burning after a year of denials by ministers and industry representatives that mass palm oil plantations damaged the environement or contributed to species extinction and global warming.
Who do they think they are kidding? If Malaysians are prepared to believe such brazen claims, whilst wandering in a haze of pollution and propaganda it is up to them. Outsiders looking on can certainly read the situation and are deeply concerned not to end up part of this problem by driving the market for unsustainable and abusively sourced products.
Palm oil producers are welcome to go to Europe and America and seek out similar abuses there – at least they will not be barred and deterred from entering plantations to check them out in the way researchers find they are so often in East Malaysia.
Meanwhile, the Malaysian oil palm industry and its Malaysian supporters, who will hear no evil, ought to realise why their cheeky claims not to have done damage to the environment or to have driven the near extinction of once vast populations of animals such as the orang utan are met with the deepest scepticism by global customers.
This industry is asking people to believe that although all but a fraction of Malaysia’s forests have been wiped out over the past 40 years to make way for these plantations, none of this has anything to do with the near disappearance of the plants and animals that once lived in these very jungles.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world is discussing the folly of destroying the DNA database for the future – see this week’s Forbes (the rich person’s magazine) on the idiocy of destroying the fascinating forests of Borneo for cheap palm oil.
Malaysians should catch up and not pander to a small bunch of narrow minded businessmen with political connections. Accept the situation, take action to improve and rectify the situation and to regrow natural forests in areas illegally taken from native peoples and diversify using the unparalleled richness of the natural environment of the country.
Then outsiders will start to take note and take comfort that they can buy more of Malaysia’s products, including palm oil, as matters are being put right.
To furiously deny the undeniable is only to postpone a far worse outcome and deeply tarnish Malaysia’s good name in the process.