La­bor abuses found at In­done­sian palm plan­ta­tions sup­ply­ing global com­pa­nies Kids as young as 8 work in ‘haz­ardous’ con­di­tions

Kuwait Times - - BUSINESS -

Global con­sumer com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Unilever, Nes­tle, Kel­logg and Proc­ter & Gam­ble, have sourced palm oil from In­done­sian plan­ta­tions where la­bor abuses were un­cov­ered, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional said yes­ter­day. Chil­dren as young as eight worked in “haz­ardous” con­di­tions at palm plan­ta­tions run by Sin­ga­pore-based Wil­mar In­ter­na­tional Ltd and its sup­pli­ers on the In­done­sian is­lands of Kal­i­man­tan and Su­ma­tra, Amnesty said in a re­port.

Amnesty, which said it in­ter­viewed 120 work­ers, al­leges that many of them worked long hours for low pay and with­out ad­e­quate safety equip­ment. The palm oil from these plan­ta­tions could be traced to nine multi­na­tional com­pa­nies, it said. “De­spite promis­ing cus­tomers that there will be no ex­ploita­tion in their palm oil sup­ply chains, big brands con­tinue to profit from ap­palling abuses,” said Meghna Abra­ham, se­nior in­ves­ti­ga­tor at Amnesty. The NGO said it chose Wil­mar as the fo­cus of its in­ves­ti­ga­tion as the com­pany is the world’s largest pro­ces­sor and mer­chan­diser of palm and lau­ric oils, con­trol­ling more than 43 per­cent of the global palm oil trade.

Other com­pa­nies op­er­at­ing palm plan­ta­tions in In­done­sia in­clude Golden AgriRe­sources Ltd, Ind­o­food Agri Re­sources Ltd and PT As­tra Agro Les­tari Tbk. Even though In­done­sia has strong labour laws un­der which most of the abuses can amount to crim­i­nal of­fences, these laws are poorly en­forced by the gov­ern­ment, Amnesty said. Wil­mar said it wel­comed the NGO’s re­port, which helps to high­light labour is­sues within the broader palm oil in­dus­try, but added that find­ing a so­lu­tion re­quires the col­lab­o­ra­tion of gov­ern­ments, com­pa­nies and civil so­ci­ety or­ga­ni­za­tions. “We ac­knowl­edge that there are on­go­ing la­bor is­sues in the palm oil in­dus­try, and these is­sues could af­fect any palm com­pany op­er­at­ing in In­done­sia,” it said.

“The fo­cus on Wil­mar ... is of­ten used to draw at­ten­tion to prob­lems in the wider palm oil in­dus­try.” Wil­mar sup­plies around 10 per­cent of the to­tal palm oil used in Nes­tle’s prod­ucts, the Swiss food gi­ant said in an email. Nes­tle said it is work­ing with Wil­mar to im­prove the trace­abil­ity of the com­mod­ity. “Prac­tices such as those iden­ti­fied in Amnesty In­ter­na­tional’s re­port have no place in our sup­ply chain,” Nes­tle said. The com­pany said it would in­ves­ti­gate al­le­ga­tions re­lated to its pur­chase of palm oil along with its sup­pli­ers. Proc­ter & Gam­ble also said in an email it is work­ing with Wil­mar to “en­sure they can rem­edy any po­ten­tial hu­man rights in­fringe­ments in their sup­ply chain”.

Re­duc­ing child la­bor

In­done­sia is the world’s big­gest pro­ducer of palm oil, used in ev­ery­thing from snacks and soaps to cos­met­ics and bio­fu­els. The sec­tor em­ploys mil­lions, and plan­ta­tion op­er­a­tors say it is dif­fi­cult to have com­plete over­sight of la­bor con­di­tions. No com­pany would “con­sciously” hire un­der­age la­bor as that is against the law, but some plan­ta­tion work­ers get their chil­dren to help out, Su­mar­jono Saragih, an of­fi­cial at the In­done­sian Palm Oil As­so­ci­a­tion, told Reuters by tele­phone. “If chil­dren want to help their par­ents, com­pa­nies can­not for­bid that,” Saragih said. The gov­ern­ment has been try­ing to re­duce child labour by giv­ing sub­si­dies and other as­sis­tance to fam­i­lies, Maruli Ha­soloan, a se­nior of­fi­cial at the man­power min­istry, told Reuters in an email.

The min­istry will also study work­ing con­di­tions at palm plan­ta­tions and im­prove labour pro­tec­tion in In­done­sia, he said. Agus Jus­tianto, an of­fi­cial at In­done­sia’s en­vi­ron­ment min­istry, said that a com­pany found guilty of la­bor vi­o­la­tions could get its per­mit re­voked, but it is “not in the en­vi­ron­ment min­istry’s do­main.” US snack and break­fast food com­pany Kel­logg Co said it is com­mit­ted to en­sur­ing that its palm oil is ob­tained from “known and cer­ti­fied sources that are en­vi­ron­men­tally ap­pro­pri­ate, so­cially ben­e­fi­cial and economically vi­able”.

If Kel­logg finds or is made aware of any sup­ply chain vi­o­la­tions, it would dis­cuss cor­rec­tive ac­tions with its sup­pli­ers, it said. “If the con­cerns are not ad­e­quately ad­dressed, we take ac­tion to re­move them from our chain.” Unilever said while sig­nif­i­cant progress has been made to tackle en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues as­so­ci­ated with palm cul­ti­va­tion, more needs to be done to ad­dress “these deeply con­cern­ing so­cial is­sues” and promised to work with its part­ners. — Reuters

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