Women’s Empowerment Raises Yields: A Guide to Establishing a More Equal Plantation Environment

Photo courtesy of RSPO
Women’s Empowerment Raises Yields: A Guide to Establishing a More Equal Plantation Environment

The world is waking up to the gender disparities that have prevented women from equal participation and gainful employment in the workforce.

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 our industry today?

Women are particularly vulnerable to taxing labour conditions on plantations, and face greater health risks due to the nature of their jobs within plantations, such as spraying pesticides and applying fertilisers.

In addition, women in plantations are also vulnerable to harassment and sexual abuse especially when steps have not been taken by companies to address systemic gaps which allow such incidences 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 work force.

The guidance also refers to specific indicators of the 2018 RSPO Principles & 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 today by taking the following simple, but effective, steps.

Firstly, change begins within the organisation 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 fertilisers, etc.

Inadequate access to financial literacy programmes, 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 sensitise 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.

Secondly, 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 counselling 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 organisations who 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 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. They 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 over 30,000 of them in Sumatra.

Empowering women makes good business sense.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (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 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 towards 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 not in place, organisations 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 labour conditions and policies in the workplace.

Responses will highlight successful company practices as well as potential areas for improvement. Through this, senior management can analyse employee sentiments on policies, and communicate effectively with female workers on improving relevant areas accordingly. Results are visualised through a spider chart which 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 our 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 you and your company to produce a more equitable and sustainable environment for your workforce. In doing so, we progress towards making gender inclusivity the new norm within the palm oil industry.

Prasad Vijaya Segaran is Human Rights and Social Standards, a Senior Executive at The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil