KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Human rights abuses at palm oil plantations are going unpunished by the industry watchdog due to weak rules, critics say, as an Amnesty International report on Wednesday exposed severe violations at Indonesian plantations.
Adequate access for workers to food and water is considered a "minor" compliance requirement, according to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil's (RSPO) certification guidelines. So are adequate housing, medical and educational facilities.
One RSPO rule says it is acceptable for children to work in estates owned by their family, as long as it doesn't interfere with their education and they are not exposed to hazardous conditions.
Human rights advocates say the RSPO's labor guidelines show little concern for the welfare of workers, making its claim that its members are sustainable producers unreliable.
"Simply put, the RSPO does not protect workers and is unable to provide truly responsible palm oil," said Emma Lierley, Forests Communications Manager at California-based Rainforest Action Network (RAN).
Palm oil is the most widely used edible oil in the world, found in everything from margarine to cookies and soap. Grown mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia, plantations have come under scrutiny from activists and consumer companies, particularly over the clearing of millions of hectares of forest.
The RSPO certificate, seen as a global standard for sustainability claims, is used by plantations and consumer goods companies such as Nestle and Unilever to show there has been no environmental damage or labor abuses in their supply chain.
An Amnesty investigation on Wednesday showed children as young as eight working in hazardous conditions, forced labor and other violations in RSPO-certified plantations owned by Wilmar International Ltd.
Despite other reports of abuses, no RSPO member has lost its certification over labor issues.
In a statement to Reuters, the RSPO said it was aware of the problems in the industry and conscious of gaps in its certification guidelines, which will be next reviewed in 2018.
"The RSPO fully acknowledges the existence of serious problems in the protection of worker and human rights within the palm oil industry where poverty, weak law enforcement and the presence of legislative gaps contribute to the challenge of making the palm oil sector truly sustainable," said Stefano Savi, global outreach and engagement director of the RSPO.
Under pressure from green groups, RSPO - whose members include plantations, environmental and social activist groups and consumer goods manufacturers - has addressed environmental concerns, but labor rights is an emerging issue.
"There are gaps in standards, implementation and verification (of labor issues). It is very clear that the RSPO and the membership has prioritized other topics," said Johan Verburg, an advisor at charitable group Oxfam and an executive board member of the RSPO.
At the latest RSPO annual meeting in Bangkok, several calls were made for labor reforms, some participants told Reuters. A keynote speech also addressed labor and human rights abuses - the first time the issue has been addressed so publicly in an RSPO forum.
A Reuters analysis of the RSPO's complaints panel - a system that reviews concerns raised at its member companies - shows that only two cases of labor abuses were brought to it in 2015 and 2016 based on exposes by media or NGOs.
Many of RSPO's guidelines have been questioned. For instance, the body allows the use of toxic pesticide paraquat, which the European Union has banned, under special circumstances.
Amnesty says most RSPO standards focus on environmental or broader social impacts on adjoining communities.
"The RSPO has a limited number of standards on workers' rights and is quite superficial even on the issues that are covered," said Meghna Abraham, senior investigator at Amnesty.
"The RSPO needs to drastically overhaul not just its standards but its entire approach to identifying labor abuses."
Reporting by Emily Chow and A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by Richard Pullin