Palm Oil Watchdog Sawit Watch is saying that exploitation of workers continues to take place in a number of plantations of the Sinar Mas Group, while the company is retorting that time is needed to put order into the complex problems on the field and that conditions there are not as simple nor as bad as pictured.

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Announcing the results of a study conducted together with Asia Monitor Resource Center (AMRC) at two palm oil plantations managed by Sinar Mas’ Golden Agri Resources (GAR) subsidiaries in the Central Kalimantan district of Seruyan, Asian Agri said that serious violations of human rights and labor rights were still found there.

“Violations on the fundamental labor rights are taking place even though those two GAR subsidiaries are RSPO certificate holders,” the conclusion of the report said, referring to the sustainability certification by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

“There are six key findings,” said Abu Mufakhir, the editor of the report, on what he said about the violations.

He cited an unfair system of work, health and safety problem, low wages, bad living conditions, gender discrimination and also that the company hid labor when sustainability auditors were on a visit.

The study was conducted for three months, from September to November 2017, at two palm oil plantations respectively managed by PT Tapian Nadenggan dan PT Mitra Kara Agroindo. Mufakhir said a total of 49 laborers, mostly daily hired hands, were interviewed at the two plantations during the research.

At the same occasion, Managing Director Sustainability dan Strategic Stakeholders Engagement GAR Agus Purnomo said that the company had since 2015 a policy governing work and industrial relations.

He said the policy stresses “responsible manpower”.

“In efforts to improve the management of our manpower, we have invited labor experts to conduct evaluations and recommendations,” Purnomo said, adding that the process of improving this management was ongoing and needed time because of the complexity of the issues faced.

Commenting on the statement from the Sawit Watch labor specialist Hotler “Zidane” Parsaoran that the two companies were still employing a lot of daily labor who were mostly cheaply paid women despite some of them having worked for them for years, Purnomo said that since the first quarter of 2017, before the current research started, the companies had already begun to move daily labor into permanent plantation workers.

While in November 2017 the company had 1,850 permanent workers and 2,619 daily hires, the number had respectively become 3,196 and 1,054 by June 2018.

“Shifting all daily hires into permanent workers can have a significant impact on the local community. We can do that, but not all part-time workers can and want to become permanent workers,” Purnomo said.

He said most daily hired hands were women because they needed not only additional income for their family but also time to care for them and thus the flexibility provided by the status of a daily hire was a solution.

He also pointed out that daily hired hands could earn more than permanent workers as they could also work for other plantations in their free time.

The Sub-directorate Head of Work Criteria of the Ministry of Manpower Retno Pratiwi said at the same occasion that laws and regulations did not prohibit the use of daily hires in particular cases such as for seasonal works, for one-time projects, or for new products.

“However, the law on manpower requires that the company provides facilities for the well-being of their workers,” Pratiwi said.

Zidane previously said that there was discrimination in access to company facilities and services, between permanent workers and daily hires. The latter could not access the company’s medical facilities, for example, Zidane said.

In Health and Work Safety, the companies also used dangerous chemicals such as in pesticide and many of the sprayers had health problems because they did not have the proper safety protection equipment, he said. He also added that the companies did not provide training on the necessary precaution for the safe use of the dangerous substances.

Purnomo said that the company actually provided safety equipment such as helmets, hand gloves, and goggles but it was also difficult to ensure that the workers actually used them at all times on the field.

Mufakhir reminded the company that the use of safety equipment was the last aspect in assuring the health and safety of workers working with dangerous substances.

“It should be remembered that most important is avoiding the use of dangerous substances. If one cannot hinder it, then less dangerous substitutes should be sought,” he said.

Regarding allegations of low pay especially for daily hires, Purnomo said that the pay met the daily minimum level, but because of the number of days they worked, daily hires earned less than the local monthly minimum wage.

Pratiwi added that the minimum wage was what it is describing, a bare minimum and that companies should strive to provide higher wages than the minimum.

Zidane and Mufakhir also pointed out that the water in plantation housing was murky and unfit for consumption. Purnomo admitted that it may be the case but added that in time when palm oil prices were low and the company was posting losses, it would be difficult to invest to address this problem now.

Zidane and Mufakhir explained further that the practice in the field was to hide the daily workers or confine them to their homes when auditors were visiting to conduct sustainability audits for RSPO and thus the result was that such audits were not effective in providing a true image of what was happening in the plantation

Purnomo promised to look into the matter while RSPO Indonesian Director Tiur Rumondang said that field audits differed very much in terms of difficulties from audits conducted from a desk at an office.

“We are also aware of the limitation of the audit process compared to research such as this and therefore we are opening ourselves to external information,” Rumondang said.

According to Mufakhir, one of the conclusions of the research was that “Sinar Mas/GAR was not effective enough in identifying, preventing and reducing human rights violations within their work areas.”

Purnomo said that building a humane and sustainable plantation culture was the key to assure the continuity of production. He also added that the process to change the existing cultural mindsets requires time.

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