RSPO “mixed”? may contain forced labour, environmental destruction (we don’t know)

RSPO “mixed”? may contain forced labour, environmental destruction (we don’t know)

Anyone trying to buy products that are environmentally and socially sustainable and not harmful to human rights or the environment faces an immense challenge. Not only are more and more environmental and human rights groups turning certification labelling into a profitable business (more business than protection), their claims seem less and less credible. Deforestation and biodiversity loss continues at an alarming rate, while child labour and forced labour continues to be widespread, with no sign of declining. What is declining is people’s confidence in large multinational corporations with extensive global supply chains being able to live up to their sustainability claims.

Underpinning the gap between these claims and the reality is the issue of traceability. Companies must know exactly where each and every ingredient came from, the impact of how it was grown, raised, caught and/or produced, how it travelled through the supply chain and under what environmental and social conditions, to end up in the final product. Only through traceability can they know. And they don’t know. One reason is that the responsibility of monitoring and reporting is outsourced to third-party certification agencies, foundations and organizations, including NGOs, who are effectively paid to police themselves.

Block chain is presented as the technological answer. But block chain only ensures no one can tamper with information inputted along the way. So if the information inputted (by humans) is unreliable, then block chain preserves the integrity of the lie. It cannot be tampered with.

Another reason traceability is problematic is that there are grey areas where it is unclear where the ingredient or produce came from. In fisheries this includes distant water fishing (DWF) fleets mixing the catch at sea and deliberately mislabeling the point of origin. Or seafood companies semi-processing in informal peeling sheds before bringing the product into their factories. In agriculture, sugar, tobacco, and palm oil are not sourced from identifiable farms or fields, but are presented by buyers and “middle-men” as a single crop. Or under coffee and cacao certification the certification bodies allow the misuse of farmers’ names and farm locations to claim that it meets all the requirements. And farmers still don’t get the promised premium.

This is clearly demonstrated by the “mixed” trademark of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The “mixed” certification label means that RSPO certified the palm oil used in the product under its Mass Balance supply chain approach. Mass Balance means that palm oil made from palm kernel harvested in plantations certified as free from deforestation, environmental destruction, and human rights abuses is mixed with palm kernel from plantations not certified as free from deforestation, environmental destruction, and human rights. So “on balance” RSPO and its corporate customers hope it turns out okay in terms of the environment and human rights.

We could liken it to the warning of possible allergens in packaged food labelling: “this product may contain traces of nuts”. This usually means food products containing nuts were manufactured on the same line, so traces may have ended up in the current food product. So what this really means is: we don’t know, there could be traces of nuts, so be careful. It’s precautionary. What the RSPO “mixed” labeling means is: we don’t know, and we won’t find out. It’s irresponsible.

The distinction between palm oil and palm kernel is significant. Most people (as informed consumers) believe that sustainable palm oil and 100% traceability concerns the palm oil plantations themselves. This is logical since deforestation, habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions from destruction of forests and peatland, forced labour, child labour, excessive pesticide use, land grabbing and displacement of indigenous peoples all occur on or around plantations. But within the industry palm oil is the product of palm oil refineries and traceability refers only to the ability to track palm oil shipments to the refinery itself. It is not traceable to the plantations.This allows a crucial grey area of flexibility. Companies can include palm kernel within the cope of sustainability if they have good examples to promote, and exclude it when forests are burning or human rights are violated. Like “mixed”, the interchangeable use of palm oil and palm kernel allows a very flexible use of traceability, which in turns allows deniability.

The “mixed” RSPO label means that you are consuming a product that was made with some sustainable palm oil, and some unsustainable palm oil. There might be some deforestation and and rights abuse mixed in there, RSPO doesn’t know. But why doesn’t RSPO know? The reason is that there is still no system for monitoring and control to ensure compliance. This is partly because the entire system of regulation, monitoring and enforcement is privatized and financed by the companies using the RSPO certification labels.

As long as private industry certification organizations can monopolize a commodity or industry, they can limit the choices people make. In the case of the Maldives, union members of BKMU fish tuna sustainably with single pole lines with no by-catch, no harm to other species and no nets causing damage to the environment. But the distant water fishing (DWF) fleets backed by their own governments and the certification bodies can denounce tuna caught sustainably in the Maldives by unionized fishers, force it off the supermarket shelves in Europe, and replace it with marine species caught through destructive drift net fishing. There is no discussion of traceability when it comes to massive DWF trawlers killing a multitude of other marine species, destroying coral reefs and ocean habitats, and using abusive labour practices, including forced labour. It still ends up in supermarkets as sustainable, because the certification bodies, their “alliances” and corporate-backed NGOs say it is.

The only way for people to be certain that the products they consume aren’t linked to environmental destruction or human rights violations (and therefore really have a choice) is to ensure that the environment and human rights are protected. Palm oil companies and their buyers must stop lobbying against stricter environmental, labour and human rights legislation. They must stop undermining the efforts to protect the rights of rural communities and indigenous peoples – especially with regard to land rights. Palm oil companies and their buyers must stop the aggressive repression of trade union rights and guarantee all workers – especially migrant workers – have full and unconditional access to the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Rural communities, indigenous peoples, marginal farmers and workers must be self-organized, collectively represented, and be able to protect their rights and interests. Only then can we ensure the protection of the environment and human rights that people want and expect from the products they consume. There are no mixed messages in that.

In response to demands to reinstate unfairly terminated women workers, Phillips Seafood management cancels health insurance

In response to demands to reinstate unfairly terminated women workers, Phillips Seafood management cancels health insurance

On November 25, 2022, the union met with Phillips Seafood Indonesia management to demand that the 40 unfairly terminated women daily workers be given work and be converted to permanent positions. Management refused and repeated that the women failed to improve their “speed” in meeting daily targets.

Five days later, on November 30, management stopped contributions to their mandatory government health care.


Ignoring protests by women workers, US management visiting Phillips Seafood factory in Indonesia focused on machinery

Ignoring protests by women workers, US management visiting Phillips Seafood factory in Indonesia focused on machinery

On December 1-2, 2022, a team of senior management from Phillips Seafood – including US management – visited the crab meat factory in Lampung, Indonesia, to asses upgrading machinery and equipment. They ignored a massive protest by women workers over the unfair termination of daily workers who demanded permanent jobs. They did not stop to meet the union representatives. They did not undertake any due diligence. They did not call for an assessment of employment status, workloads, working conditions or daily targets. They focused on the replacement and repair of machinery. Does this reflect the values – and the lack of moral values – of a company that claims to be a homegrown family business in Baltimore?

US management ignored this


After 20 years as casual workers, women seafood processing workers in Indonesia requested permanent jobs. Phillips Seafood terminated them.

After 20 years as casual workers, women seafood processing workers in Indonesia requested permanent jobs. Phillips Seafood terminated them.

For two decades Sri Rezeki, Eti and Suwarni, worked every day shelling crabs and extracting crab meat at the Phillips Seafood factory in Lampung, Indonesia. As daily paid workers they worked under intense pressure to meet rapidly changing daily targets measured in kilograms of crab meat. They suffered from excessive work, injuries and ill health. Every morning for 20 years they were on standby, waiting for a text message from management to know whether they should report to the factory or not. It was an added layer of insecurity and anxiety in an already insecure job.

Just as the family-owned Phillips Seafood restaurant business based in Baltimore, USA, is investing in expanding the production of crab meat at the Lampung factory, Sri Rezeki, Eti and Suwarni – along with 37 other women daily workers – stopped receiving text messages on August 30, 2022. They were effectively terminated.

When the union demanded to know why the 40 women are no longer called to work, management claimed that it was due to “poor performance”-  failing to meet their daily targets. But what Sri Rezeki, Eti and Suwarni have in common with 35 women workers employed as daily workers for 20 years and another two women, Rusmiyati and Desiyanti, who worked for 13 years, is that they formally requested permanent jobs.They made the request in 2010, 2012 and 2017.

“performance results are just an excuse to change the workers”

After the union won recognition from the company at the end of 2021 (after a 12 year struggle for trade union rights) and negotiated its first collective agreement, the push for permanent jobs for women daily workers escalated in 2022. In response management simply stopped calling them in to work. Only after the union demanded the women resume work and be made permanent did management then claim it was due to “poor performance”. After 20 years. So the question remains: how can a company like Phillips Seafood decide that the women workers in Indonesia who extracted and prepared crab meat for its restaurants in the USA for two decades are now simply disposable?

Is this the future of work? Grab Philippines terminates delivery riders to silence concerns about insecurity and abuse

Is this the future of work? Grab Philippines terminates delivery riders to silence concerns about insecurity and abuse

With all the talk about “the future of work”, there is no doubt that tens of millions digital platform workers will be a vital part of that future. But will they have the fundamental human rights and freedoms that all workers are entitled to? Grab Philippines seems to think the answer is, No.

In response to a peaceful rally organized by the United Riders of the Philippines – Sentro ng mga Nagkakaisa at Progresibong Manggagawa – International Union of Food (RIDERS – SENTRO – IUF) in Pampanga, Grab Philippines summarily terminated two riders, Mark Larson Vallejo and Mary Rose Cenidoza.

The rally was one of many peaceful rallies organized by RIDERS – SENTRO – IUF across the Philippines to draw attention to the insecurity, unfair treatment and lack of protection faced by delivery riders.

Instead of responding to these concerns by engaging with the union, Grab Philippines management (not the algorithm) decided to terminate Vallejo and Cenidoza as punishment for speaking out. But the action by Grab Philippines proved the point: delivered riders are vulnerable to unfair, arbitrary punishment, and have no job protection.

This cannot become the future of work, where digital platforms earning billions claim they are creating jobs and improving livelihoods, while passing all the risk to workers through harsh working conditions, unbearable stress, and irregular and unstable incomes. In fact this fear and insecurity – and not artificial intelligence or algorithms – seem to be the primary management tool for these digital platform companies.

RIDERS – SENTRO – IUF was formed by delivery riders in the Philippines to fight against such a future and to make these essential jobs safe, secure and decently paid. If Grab Philippines is to have any kind of future it must reinstate Vallejo and Cenidoza, listen to the concerns raised in these peaceful rallies, and talk to the union. Only then will there be a possibility that the future of work for tens of millions of digital platform workers will be decent work.


RIDERS – SENTRO – IUF Statement Calling for the Reinstatement of Mark Larson Vallejo and Mary Rose Cenidoza

Support Your Riders, Not Punish Them:

The freedom of speech and expression is one of the most important values in any society.  All Filipinos have the right to speak up against abuse, injustice, and unfairness without any fear of retaliation, including the termination of employment. In fact, companies that would rather harass and terminate their workers for speaking up for their needs and concerns than address these demonstrates their disregard for the wellbeing of their employees, the very same people that they praise as essential partners and part of their corporate families.

The United Riders of the Philippines – Sentro ng mga Nagkakaisa at Progresibong Manggagawa – International Union of Food (RIDERS – SENTRO – IUF) condemns grabs brazen and groundless termination of Mark Larson Vallejo and Mary Rose Cenidoza both delivery riders of Grab Philippines in Pampanga. Their termination, based only on the vague insinuation of “violating” Grab’s Code of Conduct via text, even committing a “fraud-related issue” according to the Grab app is simply an act of intimidation.

Clearly, the termination was done purely to punish Vallejo and Cenidoza for standing up for their fellow riders and demanding just protection and support for the vital work that they do for Grab and the thousands that rely on the platform’s services.

RIDERS – SENTRO – IUF demands the immediate reinstatement of Vallejo, Cenidoza and the end to Grab management’s harassment of its workers. If Grab is serious in its commitment both to provide quality services to its patrons, and the safeguarding of its riders, then the company must prove this in practice – support your riders, not punish them.