Palm oil in­dus­try’s hid­den se­cret re­vealed

An As­so­ci­ated Press in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the in­vis­i­ble work­force of mil­lions of labour­ers toil­ing in the palm oil in­dus­try in Malaysia and In­done­sia found many of them suf­fer­ing from var­i­ous forms of ex­ploita­tion. Margie Ma­son and Robin Mc­Dow­ell re­port.

The Timaru Herald - - World -

An in­vis­i­ble work­force of mil­lions of labour­ers from some of the poor­est cor­ners of Asia toil in the palm oil in­dus­try, many of them en­dur­ing var­i­ous forms of ex­ploita­tion, with the most se­ri­ous abuses in­clud­ing child labour, out­right slav­ery and al­le­ga­tions of rape, an As­so­ci­ated Press in­ves­ti­ga­tion has found.

In Malaysia and In­done­sia, these work­ers tend the heavy red­dishor­ange palm oil fruit that makes its way into the sup­ply chains of many iconic food and cos­met­ics com­pa­nies like Unilever, L’Oreal, Nes­tle and Proc­ter & Gam­ble.

To­gether, the two coun­tries pro­duce about 85 per cent of the world’s es­ti­mated US$65 bil­lion (NZ$99b) palm oil sup­ply.

Palm oil is vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to avoid. Of­ten dis­guised on la­bels as an in­gre­di­ent listed by more than 200 names, it can be found in roughly half the prod­ucts on su­per­mar­ket shelves and in most cos­metic brands. It’s con­tained in paints, ply­wood, pes­ti­cides and pills. It’s also present in an­i­mal feed, bio­fu­els and even hand sani­tiser.

The AP in­ter­viewed nearly 130 cur­rent and for­mer work­ers from two dozen palm oil com­pa­nies who came from eight coun­tries and laboured on plan­ta­tions across wide swaths of Malaysia and In­done­sia. Al­most all had com­plaints against their treat­ment, with some say­ing they were cheated, threat­ened, held against their will or forced to work off un­sur­mount­able debts. Oth­ers said they were reg­u­larly ha­rassed by au­thor­i­ties, swept up in raids and de­tained in crowded govern­ment fa­cil­i­ties.

They in­cluded mem­bers of Myan­mar’s long-per­se­cuted Ro­hingya Mus­lim mi­nor­ity, who fled eth­nic cleans­ing in their home­land only to be sold into the palm oil in­dus­try. Fish­er­men who es­caped years of slav­ery on boats also de­scribed com­ing ashore in search of help, only to be traf­ficked onto plan­ta­tions – some­times with po­lice in­volve­ment. They said they worked for lit­tle or no pay and were trapped for years.

The AP used the most re­cently pub­lished data from pro­duc­ers, traders and buy­ers of the world’s most-con­sumed veg­etable oil, as well as US Cus­toms records, to link the labour­ers’ palm oil and its de­riv­a­tives from the mills that process it to the sup­ply chains of top Western com­pa­nies like the mak­ers of Oreo cook­ies, Lysol clean­ers and some of Her­shey’s choco­latey treats.

AP re­porters wit­nessed some abuses first­hand and re­viewed po­lice re­ports, com­plaints made to la­bor unions, videos and pho­tos smug­gled out of plan­ta­tions and lo­cal me­dia sto­ries to cor­rob­o­rate ac­counts wher­ever pos­si­ble. In some cases, re­porters tracked down peo­ple who helped en­slaved work­ers es­cape. More than a hun­dred rights ad­vo­cates, aca­demics, clergy mem­bers, ac­tivists and govern­ment of­fi­cials also were in­ter­viewed.

Though labour is­sues have largely been ig­nored, the pun­ish­ing ef­fects of palm oil on the en­vi­ron­ment have been de­cried for years. Still, gi­ant Western fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions like JPMor­gan Chase, Deutsche Bank and the Van­guard Group have con­tin­ued to help fuel a crop that has ex­ploded glob­ally, soar­ing from just 5 mil­lion tonnes in 1999 to 72 mil­lion tonnes today, ac­cord­ing to the US Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture.

Some­times they in­vest di­rectly but, in­creas­ingly, third par­ties are used like Malaysia-based Malayan Bank­ing Ber­had, or May­bank, one of the world’s big­gest palm oil

fi­nanciers. It not only pro­vides cap­i­tal to grow­ers but, in some cases, pro­cesses the plan­ta­tions’ pay­rolls, with ar­bi­trary and in­con­sis­tent wage de­duc­tions that are con­sid­ered in­di­ca­tors of forced labour.

‘‘This has been the in­dus­try’s hid­den se­cret for decades,’’ said Gemma Til­lack of the US-based Rain­for­est Ac­tion Net­work, which has ex­posed labour abuses on palm oil plan­ta­tions. ‘‘The buck stops with the banks. It is their fund­ing that makes this sys­tem of ex­ploita­tion pos­si­ble.’’

The AP found wide­spread labour abuses on plan­ta­tions big and small, in­clud­ing some that meet cer­ti­fi­ca­tion stan­dards set by the global Round­table on Sus­tain­able Palm Oil, an as­so­ci­a­tion that pro­motes eth­i­cal pro­duc­tion — in­clud­ing la­bor prac­tices — and whose mem­bers in­clude grow­ers, buy­ers, traders and en­vi­ron­men­tal watch­dogs.

Some of the same com­pa­nies that dis­play the RSPO’s green palm logo sig­ni­fy­ing its seal of ap­proval have

been ac­cused of con­tin­u­ing to grab land from indige­nous peo­ple and de­stroy­ing vir­gin rain­forests that are home to orang­utans and other crit­i­cally en­dan­gered species.

As global de­mand for palm oil surges, plan­ta­tions are strug­gling to find enough labour­ers, fre­quently re­ly­ing on bro­kers who prey on the most at-risk peo­ple. Many for­eign work­ers end up fleeced by a syn­di­cate of re­cruiters and cor­rupt of­fi­cials and of­ten are un­able to speak the lo­cal lan­guage, ren­der­ing them es­pe­cially sus­cep­ti­ble to traf­fick­ing and other abuses.

They some­times pay up to US$5000 just to get their jobs – an amount that could take years to earn in their home coun­tries – of­ten show­ing up for work al­ready crushed by debt. Many have their pass­ports seized by com­pany of­fi­cials to keep them from run­ning away, which the United

Na­tions recog­nises as a po­ten­tial flag of forced labour.

Count­less oth­ers re­main off the books, in­clud­ing mi­grants work­ing

with­out doc­u­men­ta­tion and chil­dren who AP re­porters wit­nessed squat­ting in the fields like crabs, pick­ing up loose fruit along­side their par­ents. Many women also work for free or on a day-to-day ba­sis, earn­ing the equiv­a­lent of as lit­tle as US$2 a day, some­times for decades.

The AP talked to some fe­male work­ers who said they were sex­u­ally ha­rassed and even raped in the fields, in­clud­ing some mi­nors.

The work­ers AP in­ter­viewed came from In­done­sia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, In­dia, Nepal, the Philip­pines and Cam­bo­dia, along with Myan­mar, which rep­re­sents the new­est army of ex­ploited labour­ers. The AP is not fully iden­ti­fy­ing them or their plan­ta­tions to pro­tect their safety.

‘‘We work un­til we are dy­ing,’’ said one worker sit­ting in a room with two other col­leagues at a Malaysian plan­ta­tion run by Felda, a govern­ment-owned com­pany. Their eyes filled with tears af­ter learn­ing Felda was one of the world’s largest palm oil pro­duc­ers.

‘‘They use this palm oil to make all these prod­ucts,’’ he said. ‘‘It makes us very sad.’’

The Malaysian govern­ment was con­tacted by the AP re­peat­edly over the course of a week, but is­sued no com­ment. Felda also did not re­spond, but its com­mer­cial arm, FGV Hold­ings Ber­had, said it had been work­ing to ad­dress work­ers’ com­plaints, in­clud­ing mak­ing im­prove­ments in re­cruit­ment prac­tices and en­sur­ing that for­eign labour­ers have ac­cess to their pass­ports.

Nageeb Wa­hab, head of the Malaysian Palm Oil As­so­ci­a­tion, a govern­ment-sup­ported um­brella group, called the al­le­ga­tions against the in­dus­try un­war­ranted: ‘‘All of them are not true,’’ he said.

The In­done­sian Palm Oil As­so­ci­a­tion said it has been striv­ing to im­prove la­bor con­di­tions for the last five years. Soes Hind­harno, spokesman for the coun­try’s Min­istry of Man­power and Trans­mi­gra­tion, said any com­pany vi­o­lat­ing govern­ment rules and reg­u­la­tions on se­ri­ous is­sues like child la­bor and not pay­ing women work­ers could face sanc­tions, in­clud­ing hav­ing their op­er­a­tions shut down.

Unilever, L’Oreal, Nes­tle and Proc­ter & Gam­ble all said they do not tol­er­ate hu­man rights abuses and in­ves­ti­gate al­le­ga­tions raised about com­pa­nies that feed into their sup­ply chains, tak­ing ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tion when war­ranted, which can in­clude work­ing with sup­pli­ers to im­prove con­di­tions or sus­pend­ing re­la­tion­ships when griev­ances are not prop­erly ad­dressed.

Deutsche Bank re­it­er­ated its sup­port of hu­man rights, Van­guard said it mon­i­tors com­pa­nies in its port­fo­lio for abuses, and JPMor­gan Chase de­clined com­ment.

May­bank ex­pressed sur­prise at the crit­i­cism of its stan­dards, say­ing that ‘‘we re­ject any in­sin­u­a­tion that May­bank may be in­volved in any un­eth­i­cal be­hav­iour.’’

This story was funded in part by the McGraw Cen­ter for Busi­ness Jour­nal­ism at CUNY’s New­mark Grad­u­ate School of Jour­nal­ism

– AP


Van­nak Anan Prum, who was dou­ble traf­ficked, points to his il­lus­tra­tion of an abu­sive for­mer boss, a palm oil es­tate owner, in his graphic novel de­pict­ing his life as a slave on a fish­ing boat be­fore be­ing sold onto a Malaysian palm oil plan­ta­tion.


Work­ers load palm oil fruit weigh­ing up to 22kg each into a truck on a palm oil plan­ta­tion in Su­ma­tra, In­done­sia.

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