Sime Darby Plantation looks into petition alleging child and forced labour

Sime Darby Plantation is looking into allegations made against it in a petition that was submitted to the United States (US) Customs and Border Protection on 20th April 2020. The petition was submitted by activist group Liberty Shared, and urged the US Customs and Border Protection to exclude palm oil and palm oil products produced wholly, or in part, by forced labour and child labour by Sime Darby Plantation owned and affiliated companies. 

In a press statement, Sime Darby Plantation said it will be engaging with Liberty Shared to further understand these allegations in detail to enable it to conduct a thorough and immediate investigation, and take corrective action, as the findings may warrant. It is added that the petition was submitted without soliciting any feedback from SDP.

"These are serious allegations that are against the commitments that we have publicly made, as articulated in our Responsible Agriculture Charter and our Human Rights Charter," the statement said, adding that SDP believes it has made genuine progress in improving labour practices on the ground through various initiatives and collaborations with multiple partners and NGOs.

"We believe this in turn will further help strengthen our practices globally to ensure we embed the respect for Human Rights on the ground throughout our operations," SDP added.

In the petition summary seen by A+M, Liberty Shared its investigations revealed a wide range of experiences in terms of worker recruitment, working conditions, and treatment on the plantations by managers and supervisors. 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.

Of the workers interviewed, a number said they were deceived into believing they would be working in factories and that the salary level would be higher than that which they actually receive. Workers said they had to pay recruitment fees and most had to take out loans, some at high interest rates, to pay the fees, and in some cases further fees were raised after initial payments had been made. All workers say they paid the recruitment agents for arrangement of the job, transport, and entry into Malaysia. No worker interviewed said they received minimum wage once deductions were taken into account, and some said they were unable to determine the wage they would receive. Workers complained of potential and actual physical threats.

It is added that in Liberty Shared's opinion, there are audit findings showing issues ranging from retention of passports, failure to provide contracts, failure to make payments, improper deductions, lack of knowledge of relevant laws for compliance requirements, and issues with recruitment agents.

The petition summary also said local workers reported that, as recently as less than four years ago, children of local plantation workers were used by a plantation manager and supervisors to place rat poison at the foot of the palm oil trees without any protective equipment. The workers explain that the supervisors 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. However, that manager has now left and workers now fear that their children will again be used for poison placement or some other such purpose. 

Liberty Shared said that its conclusion that SDP has forced labour and child labour practices were made through:

  • Interviews with workers and members of civil society.
  • Scrutiny of public disclosures.
  • Audit reports and sustainability-related initiatives.
  • Analysis of public information about corporate governance.
  • Risk management and internal controls.
  • A review of civil society and academic research and open source information about relevant supply chains.
  • Consideration of the history of the recruitment and employment of unskilled labor to the Malaysian industrial agricultural sector.

Separately in May, Sime Darby-owned retailer Tesco uncovered abuses against migrant workers at its stores distribution centres and retail outlets in Malaysia and Thailand following an assessment by independent human rights consultancy Impactt in September last year. According to Tesco's modern slavery statement 2019/2020, the company said passports of 239 workers - 68 Indonesian and 171 Nepali - were found to be withheld by a site in Malaysia.

"All passports were returned to workers and new policies and procedures introduced for when passpneworts are required for work permit renewal or other government purposes," Tesco said. Additionally, the assessment by Impactt with 168 migrant workers in Malaysia found several serious allegations, including cases of passport retention, unexplained and illegal wage reductions, heavy indebtedness to labour brokers in home country, excessive overtime. In response to the findings, Tesco said in the modern slavery statement that a comprehensive action plan has been developed by Tesco Malaysia, Tesco Group Responsible Sourcing and external human rights experts.

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