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The recent Associate Press report (November 19, 2020) has called attention to serious allegations of abuse against women employed or associated with the palm oil industry. As part of the industry, MPOC are undoubtedly appalled by these allegations of sexual and other women workers’ rights abuses. On behalf of the Malaysian palm oil industry, MPOC takes a stand in opposition to all forms of sexual harassment and abuse. Further, we take all such allegations seriously.

The AP report clearly outlined actions of individuals employed by various plantations who committed such acts against fellow women employees. But let us make it clear that these actions are never condoned by the respective plantation managements. There are strict codes of conduct prescribed to all employees, irrespective of the position they hold in the organization’s hierarchy.

Unfortunately perdition through sexual misconduct is not uncommon across the globe despite centuries of historical, cultural and moral restrictions. While society prescribed standards are obvious, individuals flaunting such norms are only too common.

To cite just a few examples. The US Scout movement is currently embroiled in more than 82,000 sex-abuse lawsuits. A well-known global fast-food chain is facing charges of sexual harassment of its employees around the world. The seats of political power in the developed as well as developing economies are blushing with various similar misconduct against women. Even our various religious abodes, are not spared similar malice.

Do these then mean that these organizations built on historical, cultural and morally bound principles have gone rotten or does the axe needs to fall just on the individual perpetuator among our midst? We opine for collective responsibility and corrective actions throughout the hierarchy and the same also should apply to our plantations.

The AP report called out such individuals within our midst (and there may be many more) and they must be identified and justice served. When the Malaysian authorities stated they had received no reports of such abuse, it means they cannot institute legal actions unless complaints are lodged officially.

Nevertheless, we view these allegations very seriously as they are criminal in nature and have to be subjected to our criminal code of justice. Malaysia will not condone such criminal acts nor tolerate any misuse/abuse of any employees, especially women.

If the motive of the authors of the AP report is to give justice to the alleged victims, we urge the authors to immediately cooperate with Malaysian authorities or through an appropriate independent NGO by sharing the exact evidence so these allegations can be thoroughly investigated. Withholding or silencing such evidence is not helping the victims, nor the industry and will above all hinder justice.

Our industry therefore stands ready to immediately act on these complaints, even if they are isolated cases. If this necessitates appointment of a third party independent auditor /NGO to investigate these allegations including engagement of senior female representatives, I am sure that palm oil industry is ready to facilitate these actions.

Meanwhile Malaysian palm oil industry has taken major strides in prescribing and adhering to sustainability certification standards through our own mandatory MSPO or alternately the RSPO, ISCC etc. Within these are engrained principles and criteria that already acknowledge and account that women could face some different and additional challenges compared to their male colleagues in the palm oil industry.

That such participating women may require special and additional support is already being recognized and the major plantations are actively instituting such practices. The AP report when citing examples have raised the curtain of wrong doings within examples of such plantation entities, albeit by irresponsible individuals, not necessarily proven to the organization’s operating guidelines. We should therefore look forward towards heightened awareness among management to ensure such criminal activities do not recur under their watch.

Furthermore, these sustainable certification standards require that women are given avenues to raise their grievances without fear of retaliation and have a say in terms of how they can manage impacts on their daily work. These safeguards are in place and stricter adoption appears an urgent next step.

While we agree on the above challenges, the AP report like many Western media out to fleece a palm oil scalp went to length about the extremely tough working conditions in plantations for women. Their narrative has again cherry picked so called evidence from a past era, since current practices in most instances have changed for the better by leaps and bounds. In pockets where these activities exist, again we seek cooperation from the AP authors to reveal the identity and locations so that the authorities can act on these matters.

A final comment. While we commend AP for this expose and supporting women’s rights, we noticed an anomaly on their website upload of their article. There is a photo of a group of women purportedly detained by the Indonesian authorities and being interrogated. Some of these women portrayed could possibly be under aged.

AP has done them disservice by revealing their identities and we are afraid some of them may forever be targeted. If this was instead from the West, AP could be subjected to class action suits. Has AP erroneously assumed that were shielded from facing such class actions from these communities? Strangely, in our opinion at least, they are themselves contributing to the erosion of the rights of such women.

But let this close with a note of thanks to the AP authors for this expose and we too wish to join in efforts to correct such abuses. After all, we have mothers, wives and daughters within the plantation environment and we need them to walk tall with dignity and without fear of abuse or harassment.

Datuk Dr. Kalyana Sundram
Chief Executive Officer
23 November 2020

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