Written by Corey Hill
Palm oil is nearly everywhere. It’s in tortilla chips, a cheap way to add oil and maintain texture. It’s in shaving cream, helping it stay creamy. Palm oil is in soap, microwave meals, doughnuts, and cookies. The great panoply of processed goods that fill the center aisles in most American grocery stores are dominated by palm oil.
And yet, to consumers, it’s all but invisible. Part of this invisibility may be due to the fact that there are no fewer than 200 different names for palm oil, from the esoteric sounding “palmolein” to the generic “vegetable oil.”
But palm oil has deeper secrets than misleading nomenclature. By now many people have heard about the environmental impacts of this ubiquitous food and cosmetic additive. “Palm Oil Is Killing the Sumatran Tiger,” TIME magazine trumpeted in a headline last year. “A Grim Portrait of Palm Oil Emissions,” The New York Times warned. Here’s how David Gilbert explained it in a 2012 story in Earth Island Journal: “Borneo’s lowland rainforests and peat swamp forests are nature’s densest stores of carbon, and when the trees are chopped down and burned or left to rot, or peat swamps drained and dried, the CO2 stored in them is released into the atmosphere. Even though Indonesia has relatively few factories, all of the forest clearing has pushed the country to the top of the list of the world’s contributors to climate change.”
Yet even as the environmental impacts of palm oil production gain attention, the social costs of the palm plantations remain largely hidden. The human rights abuses endemic to palm oil production are the industry’s best-kept secret.
Just two countries are responsible for 90 percent of the world’s palm oil production: Malaysia and Indonesia. In those places, children as young as 8 and 9 sometimes work seven days a week in treacherous conditions. Undocumented immigrants are lured to faraway plantations with promises of safe working conditions and fair wages, only to find a kind of indentured servitude. Weak government oversight, together with glaring deficiencies in the main independent body tasked with regulating the industry, contribute to an atmosphere of violence, fear, and exploitation.
Investigations by Amnesty International, the International Labor Rights Fund, Humanity International, the US State Department, and the magazine Bloomberg Businessweek paint a disturbing picture of conditions on palm oil plantations.
Local labor is rarely used on palm plantations, as plantation managers generally prefer workers without ties to nearby communities. So the dangerous work is relegated to workers from distant locales.
Workers often arrive with a significant debt to third party labor brokers, who notify them upon arrival at the worksite that they are now responsible for all transportation costs, including any flights or ground trips they’ve just been on. Next, employers often seize and hold passports and other identification documents. Debt peonage is common as well, with workers forced to pay for lodging and food at inflated rates. Even essential safety equipment such as gloves and goggles are added to the tab. Housing is most often substandard, lacking electricity and running water.
A nine-month investigation by Bloomberg Businessweek published in July 2013 revealed the extent of forced labor on plantations, focusing on troubles in Indonesia. One worker, who was identified with the fake name “Adam,” described a harrowing ordeal on a plantation operated by the Malaysian palm giant Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad (KLK). Upon arrival, Adam’s passport, national identity papers, and a deed to a collectively owned home were taken from him. Fresh water was shipped in once a month, but ran out after one week. Workers on the plantation frequently used Paraquat, an herbicide banned in more than 30 countries. When workers attempted to flee, they were beaten with sticks and machete handles, Adam told the reporter.
Eventually, workers on Adam’s plantation were able to enlist the assistance of Rainforest Action Network and the Malaysian NGO Sawit Watch. Pressure from these two groups resulted in many workers being allowed to leave, and promises from KLK to pay back wages to workers and blacklist the third party labor recruiter responsible for providing the workforce for the plantation. Despite KLK’s promises, most workers never received back pay, and the individuals responsible for the worst abuses continued to work for the company.
The International Labor Rights Fund gathered stories from workers on three plantations in Indonesia for a report it released last November titled “Empty Assurances.” Testimony from exploited workers shows the manner in which plantation owners try to impose indentured servitude through generating worker debt.
“Our salary during our three month training was only 200,000 Rupiah ($17 USD), rather than the 2-3 million ($173 – $260 USD) promised,” said a worker on a plantation in central Kalimantan, Indonesia. “We tried to be as efficient with this money as possible, but it was not enough. We needed to feed ourselves. So we decided to get in debt to the plantation store.”
Goods purchased at the plantation store on credit were only available at a significant markup. If purchased outright, for example, a cup of ramen noodles cost $3,500 IDR (about 30 cents). But if purchased on credit, the price went up to $4,500 IDR. By comparison, a cup of noodles could be purchased in nearby towns for as little as $2,500 IDR.
In many instances, the conditions of many workers can accurately be described as nothing less than captivity. A July 2010 report from Amnesty International, “Trapped: The Exploitation of Migrant Workers in Malaysia,” details the violence and intimidation of forced labor conditions. According to the report:
Some are beaten if they refuse to work or if they do not work fast enough, long enough, or to the standard the employer demands. Many more are threatened with harm or subjected to practices designed to impress upon them that they are powerless to refuse their services—they may be under constant vigilance by supervisors or armed guards, locked into the workplace or prevented from leaving the grounds, refused permission to make telephone calls.
According to the Rainforest Action Network report Conflict Palm, 70 percent of the palm oil labor workforce in Malaysia is comprised of migrants, many of them undocumented, a vulnerable workforce rife for exploitation. The inaccessibility of many plantations and the reticence of the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia to disturb such vital industry means that the full scope of forced and trafficked labor is difficult to asses. Most observers of the industry estimate that there are about 50,000 or more trafficked workers in each Indonesia and Malaysia.
“We only looked at three plantations, and found these serious issues on these three plantations,” says Haley Wrinkle, senior researcher at the International Labor Rights Forum. “I think this speaks to the breadth of the problem.”
Photo Credit: Wakx
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