An Indonesian girl works at an oil palm plantation in Riau province. Photo: AFP / Adek Berry

The world is waking up to the gender disparities that have prevented women from equal  participation in the workforce and gainful employment. Studies show that increasing women’s involvement in business processes makes for higher productivity, greater profitability and increased social impact. So why do these gender-based constraints still remain in the palm-oil industry? 

Women are particularly vulnerable to taxing labor conditions on plantations, and face greater health risks than men due to the nature of their jobs, such as spraying pesticides and applying fertilizers.

In addition, women in plantations are vulnerable to harassment and sexual abuse, especially when steps have not been taken by companies to address systemic gaps that allow such incidents to occur.

These hardships are further compounded by policies that hinder their ability to take up certain jobs, often due to inflexible working hours and lack of child support. This ultimately constrains them to unpaid care work. 

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has worked closely with its members to  establish a practical guidance that provides strategies and tools to companies on how to  assess, mitigate and develop an action plan to be more gender-inclusive within their workforce. 

The guidance also refers to specific indicators of the 2018 RSPO Principles and Criteria (P&C) and 2019 RSPO Independent Smallholder (ISH) standard for compliance purposes.

However, we will only see real change when more members of the industry commit to this common goal with a change in perspective of female workers. We implore the industry to start now by taking  the following simple, but effective, steps. 

First, change begins within an organization by acknowledging the gaps and discrepancies  that restrict the involvement and contribution of women in the workplace. Their contributions are often viewed as secondary, and unseen work such as domestic chores and childcare is not supported. This is in addition to their contracted jobs such as picking loose fruit, application of  fertilizers, etc. 

Inadequate access to financial literacy programs and training and lack of flexibility in working hours make meeting their standard quotas of work difficult, particularly during pregnancy.  

Plantation owners need to offer more flexibility, create alternative employment for pregnant women, and sensitize men on redistributing domestic unpaid care so that companies can also reap the benefits of enhanced reputation, reduced staff turnover, and an increased talent pool, lower recruitment and turnover costs, increase innovation, and provide opportunities for diverse  perspectives in the workforce and management. 

Second, gender discrimination and violence in this day and age should not be tolerated.  Companies should adopt a zero-tolerance policy for gender-based violence and facilitate access to counseling and health facilities for victims. Women should also be trained to oversee female personnel, which not only reduces the risk of harassment, but also creates career-development opportunities. 

Our experience has shown that organizations that have taken strides to improve women’s  positions on their plantations have benefited as a result.

The Perkumpulan Pekebun Swadaya Kelapa Sawit Rokan Hulu (PPSKS-Rohul) project in the Riau province of Indonesia recruited a  large number of female field facilitators to guide other women in safe farming practices and financial management. They even conducted a novel health and nutrition training program to improve knowledge on food accessibility and intake. 

As women are largely contracted for casual work at plantations, they are not afforded  employment rights and face unstable income. This, paired with low education levels and scarcity of opportunities, results in low interest in skilled and higher-paid positions.

By encouraging women to apply for leadership, middle-management or non-traditional jobs, companies can enjoy increased loyalty and higher motivation in work as well as more knowledgeable and financially literate employees, as in the case of the Riau project. 

Palm-oil producer and processor PT Musim Mas is another great example. It instituted the  Indonesia Palm Oil Development for Smallholders Project, an initiative that provides women with equal opportunities in training and involvement in palm-oil production. Since 2015, the project has provided financial management training to many wives of independent smallholders, and successfully trained more than 30,000 of them in Sumatra. 

Empowering women makes good business sense. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture  Organization (FAO) indicated that if women had the same access to productive resources as  men, plantations could see an increase in yields by 20-30%, raising agricultural output in  developing countries by 2.5-4%. 

The availability of and access to useful tools such as the Gender Risk Assessment Tool and a  Gender Scan Tool are useful to plantation companies to determine where their company stands in terms of gender inclusion, and how they can develop a plan toward a more inclusive workforce. 

Some examples of gender risk assessment questions that companies can ask themselves  include: “Is a gender policy in place?” “Are gender strategies and action plans being  implemented?” and “Is gender expertise available in the company?”

If such measures are in place, organizations are able to assess which policies are needed to improve their ability to reach, benefit and empower women. They should also collaborate with other companies to  develop gender networks or experience exchanges to address gaps.

The Gender Scan Tool on the other hand is a self-assessment tool that RSPO members can  use. Employees are asked to rate their agreement with statements relating to local labor  conditions and policies in the workplace. Responses will highlight successful company practices as well as potential areas for improvement.

Through this, senior management can analyze employee sentiments on policies, and communicate effectively with female workers on improving relevant areas accordingly. Results are visualized through a spider chart that can be used to develop and monitor annual plans. 

Within the palm-oil sector, recognition and empowerment of women are long overdue. Women have the capacity to strengthen the workforce, improve productivity and increase profitability. However, this will only be achieved if they are properly supported by gender-inclusive policies and procedures. 

While the RSPO Gender Guidance is not the ultimate solution, it is a stepping stone for companies to produce a more equitable and sustainable environment for their workforce. In  doing so, we progress toward making gender inclusivity the new norm within the palm-oil  industry.  

Prasad Vijaya Segaran

Prasad Vijaya Segaran is human-rights and social-standards senior executive for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.