Global vegetable oil production has steadily increased over the last 30 years. This trend is largely driven by increasing wealth in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China), national mandates for the use of biofuels and growing world populations.
In Malaysia, foreign workers supply more than 20 percent of the workforce. The US State Department notes there are approximately 2 million documented migrant workers in Malaysia and estimates even more undocumented workers exist. Malaysia is the top destination for Indonesian migrant workers. The Indonesian government estimates 1 million Indonesians who are working in Malaysia are either undocumented or have overstayed their visas. Other source countries are Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Burma and the Philippines. Low economic opportunities in their home countries, the geographic proximity of Malaysia, and Malaysia’s arrival into an upper middle-class country fuel both the demand and supply of the foreign labor market in Malaysia.
The Commoditization of the Natural Market
According to the USDA World Market Trade Report, the global use of vegetable oils has steadily increased, about 5% per year, over the last 20 years. Growing populations, increased wealth in the BRIC countries, and the resulting increased meat consumption (which requires more animal feed that comes from oilseed), have all maintained the steady growth of vegetable oils. Biofuels are also driving vegetable oil production. Biofuel production has dramatically risen over the last 15 years, going from 5 billion gallons in 2001 to almost 35 billion gallons in 2016 (Beckman, J. et al 2017). Recent biofuel increases are a response to the well-publicized connection between fossil fuel combustion and global warming. All these markets contribute to the overall positive impression that we have for natural materials. They are symbols of wealth, health, and global awareness.
It is a well-known among chemical suppliers and users (ie-manufacturers of consumable goods) within the cosmetic and personal care industries that the notion of palm and palm kernel oils as being sustainable is precarious at best. “Sustainable” palm oil garners a higher price on the open market, satisfies eco-conscious consumers, and leaves all involved with the false impression that palm and palm kernel oils can be grown sustainably in the present locations from where they originate. The US market relies on the Round Table of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to certify these oils as being produced in a sustainable manner. The RSPO does so by using third-party auditors who are obliged to follow a list of Principals and Criteria set by the RSPO. These auditors are paid by the plantations and mills they are certifying. This arrangement alone is prone to abuse. There is evidence that auditors will collude with oil palm plantations to disguise the true situation on the ground (EIA, Who Watches the Watchmen, 2015). This collusion allows their “customers” to obtain the desired certification and increases the certifier’s chances of being used again for the next property assessment. This is just one example of many that shows the inadequacy of the RSPO to halt environmental and human rights abuses that have been rampant in this industry for the last two decades.