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Gender equality in palm oil: Where are we at today?

Posted: Aug 22, 2017 4 minute read Melissa Yeoh and Elizabeth Teo

Gender equality in agriculture has become a widely-contested topic recently, and here in the palm oil industry, where employment in the plantations has long been male-dominated, there is a range of gender-related concerns being brought up. Some of these include, opportunities in employment, smallholder access to resources, decision-making and land rights.

Perhaps the main reason for this skew in employment, especially in rural areas, stems from deep-rooted cultural norms that women have larger roles to play within the family. Therefore, over the years, women in agriculture and rural areas have had less access than men to resources, services and opportunities, such as land, livestock, financial services and education. Studies now show a direct link between rural women’s lack of education and assets, to high rates of undernutrition and infant mortality. That is why organisations like CIFOR and FAO are asking companies to be more proactive in empowering women in the rural areas, and to give them an equal voice in the industry.

Golden Agri-Resources (GAR) recently participated in the CIFOR forum Call for equal rights and opportunities for women in palm oil.  Several points on gender equality in wage gaps, employment and decision making in the Indonesian palm oil sector were raised.  GAR is exploring where we can play a part in creating a more gender-balanced industry.

GAR provides equal resources to both our female and male farmers and smallholders.

Wages and employment

We provide different categories of employment such as permanent employees, fixed-term and plasma scheme smallholders. Fixed-term workers are especially used during peak harvest seasons. While we believe in gender equality at the workplace and offer jobs based on ability rather than gender, for our permanent and fixed term employees, the manual nature of agricultural work means that certain jobs continue to be more suited for male employees.

Furthermore, harvesting palm oil is much more labour intensive than several other crops, therefore requiring workers with physical strength. Male workers perform heavier physical tasks such as harvesting fresh fruit bunches (which can weigh up to 25 kilograms) and carrying them to trucks to be transported; women generally work on weeding and collecting loose fruit on the ground.

Traditional rural employment patterns also mean that many women prefer to take on part-time jobs, as it gives them the flexibility for other responsibilities such as tending to the household, childcare and family gardens. In this regard, we offer them fixed-term positions, and ensure they are treated equally based on merit, not gender.

Supporting career-oriented females

We have measures in place to help our female employees with young children, such as providing refrigerators at the workplace for storage of bottles of breast milk to save them the hassle of carrying ice boxes. We also have a firm stance to ensure that pregnant women are not exposed to chemicals, so during their pregnancies, we offer them positions in other locations in line with their competence.

In 2011, GAR started building day care centres (Rumah Pintar) in some of our concessions, where employees can send their children each day before they head to work. Each Rumah Pintar functions as a learning centre with a special focus on early childhood education and the education of women. The Rumah Pintar contains a library, play room, arts and culture corner, and is equipped with computers and multimedia stations. This way, our female employees can continue their careers even when they have children. We have built 23 Rumah Pintar across our plantations in Indonesia.

Novianti Mandasari
Changing perceptions of gender roles in the palm oil industry is not easy, but our employees like Novianti Mandasari, Environmental Engineer, are challenging the norm and breaking stereotypes.

A safe environment to work in

GAR has a zero tolerance for sexual harassment and we have been conducting extensive training to all employees to ensure a clear stand on this. In 2016, no cases of harassment or abuse were reported. We see opportunities to strengthen our education on this issue such that our employees can move from being simply compliant, to becoming champions for gender equality. Gender committees with representatives from labour unions and management have been set up to investigate harassment complaints and provide support to victims, and more importantly, to promote female participation and advancement in the workplace.

As an RSPO-certified company, we follow their Principles & Criteria (P&C) closely, including prohibition of discrimination, policy against sexual harassment and protection of reproductive rights. Public consultation is now underway to improve on these gender-related P&C such that it is less about being safeguard-oriented and more about empowerment.

Gender equality in education

GAR wants meaningful employment for women in the long term, and we believe education for women is a key initiative for this to happen. In 2016, GAR contributed more than USD1.8 million towards several scholarship programmes. In Indonesia, these programmes included Tjipta Pemuda Bangun Palma, SMART Engineer, SMART Diploma, SMART Planters and other programmes in collaboration with the Bandung Institute of Technology and Science (ITSB) as well as the Eka Tjipta Foundation. We also made contributions to the Singapore University of Technology and Design, the Peking University Education Foundation (USA) and TsingHua Education Foundation.

It is clear that the discourse on equality in the workplace is shifting towards empowerment of women. With increased research and dialogue palm oil has the opportunity, through direct and indirect means, to further the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 5 on Gender Equality.

Our female employees do some extraordinary things at work. Read some of their stories here.

Get insights about how our female employees themselves feel about diversity in the workplace.

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