Sime Darby Plantation still unclear over forced labour allegations

By SHAHEERA AZNAM SHAH / Pic By MUHD AMIN NAHARUL

BROAD allegations of forced labour against Sime Darby Plantation Bhd (SDP) have made it difficult for the matter to be resolved as the claims are unclear.

Sime Darby Oils Sdn Bhd MD Mohd Haris Mohd Arshad (picture) said progress on addressing the allegations of forced labour made by non-profit group Liberty Shared has been slow as the claims were generic and do not leave room for SDP to improve the situation.

“The challenge we are facing right now is understanding in detail what we are being accused of as what has been revealed to us was very generic and did not give us much to work on.

“We cannot move forward as we do not know what we are being accused of, and this is where I am a bit disheartened because if there are indeed labour abuses in our plantations, we would like to know as it is serious.

“Our licence could be at risk, and not knowing where the abusers are, we cannot act upon them and prolong exposing workers to others abuses,” he said at the Reuters Next virtual forum yesterday.

In December last year, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency issued a withhold release order (WRO) involving palm oil products from SDP and its subsidiaries, joint ventures and affiliated entities in Malaysia following allegations petitioned by the Hong Kong-based anti-trafficking group.

The CBP said the ban could be lifted if remedial action is taken.

In a statement on Dec 31, 2020, the group said the CBP’s news release on the matter did not provide sufficient information to allow SDP to meaningfully address the allegations that triggered the action.

SDP is the third Malaysian company to receive the detention order over forced labour allegations, after FGV Holdings Bhd and Top Glove Corp Bhd.

Separately, Mohd Haris said the withdrawal of European Union (EU) buyers from the palm oil market will disrupt the efforts to the promote sustainable production of the vegetable oil and its supply chain.

He said the issue of sustainability is primarily promoted by Western markets, but larger buyers of edible oils like China and India did not make sustainable certification a priority.

“The demand for sustainable palm oil has always been from European and Western markets, whereas big buyers like China and India, at present, do not require for the oils to be certified,” he said at the forum.

Mohd Haris said palm oil companies’ efforts to establish sustainable production will be hindered by ongoing anti-palm oil campaigns in Western markets.

“Unfortunately, efforts for sustainable palm oil are often hindered by the campaign against the industry, and it is a big disadvantage for producers who want to get certified, especially the smallholders.

“It is important to recognise that demand for certified sustainable palm oil is still lacking elsewhere globally,” he said.