Plantations do not generally employ underage workers directly. But they contribute to the problem of child labor indirectly by setting production quotas that are often unattainable for a single worker. Unable to meet their numbers, many workers bring in their children to assist, exposing them to onerous labor and dangerous pesticides.
“I often bring my children to work, despite the fact that the regulations prohibit it,” said a worker indentified as ‘Fatulusi’ in the International Labor Rights Fund report. “I need money, so I have no choice. I bring them to help me fulfill the quota target; if I don’t fulfill it I’ll be scolded. And working together we can often exceed the target and get a bonus payment.”
Most of the workers brought on to help are teenagers, but children as young as elementary school age too, are found on plantations during holidays. Children carry heavy loads of palm fruit in extreme heat, risking heat exhaustion. They climb thorny palm trees with a knife in hand to cut down the fruit with no protective gear, at times suffering cuts and abrasions.
The Malaysian NGO Sawit Watch conducted a site visit of a KLK Plantation in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo (Indonesia) in July 2013 and found that children are not immune to false promises and debt peonage. According to a report put out by the group:
Two of the children were told that they owed the recruiter for the cost of the flight and transportation to get from their hometown to the plantation, but they were never told how much they owed. Every month for the first six months, between IDR 500,000 and IDR 700,000 ($41-58 USD) was deducted from their salary, and after six months working, they received a total of IRD 1,798,000 (about $150 USD, or less than $1 a day). The cost of equipment needed for the work was then also deducted from this amount.
There is a disturbing secondary effect of children trafficked onto plantations, as well. The US State Department’s 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report identifies increases in children exploited into prostitution in two regions dominated by the palm oil industry: the Riau Province of Sumatra, and West Papua.
Indonesia has been on the US Department of Labor’s “List of Goods Made with Child Labor or Forced Labor” since 2010. In Malaysia, between 72,000 and 200,000 children are working on palm oil plantations, according to a 2012 study completed by Accenture and Humanity United.
Nowhere to Turn
Workers seeking reprieve find they have few allies in local government and law enforcement. In Malaysia, for example, investigations from Amnesty International have turned up numerous instances of bribery, theft, and even assault from immigration and law enforcement officials. Independent assessments from the World Bank and from within the government of Indonesia show a police force plagued by corruption. Fear of abuse and reprisal trump concerns for safety, limiting the ability of workers to seek redress.
The independent body created to help has been little help to workers, either. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), established in 2004, was created as a mechanism to regulate environmental and labor conditions in the palm industry. Key stakeholders include oil palm growers, palm oil processors and or traders, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, investors, and environmental and social NGOs.
It’s a worthwhile effort. But in practice the RSPO leaves much to be desired, both in terms of environmental and human rights abuses. Twelve of the 16 seats on the executive board are held by growers, processors, manufacturers, retailers or investors, leaving the public interest groups in the minority.
“Fundamentally a problem is that laborers have no voice at the table of the RSPO,” says said Laurel Sutherlin of Rainforest Action Network. “Theoretically the complaints resolution process could be used to address labor disputes, but the fact that disputes are pervasive but this process has never been used to address them is a strong sign that the system is not trusted or accessible to workers.”
The weak process for RSPO certification means that even companies with a proven legacy of abuse, like KLK, can maintain standing within the RSPO.
“Often times, a plantation will directly contract a certification body, and will find out which ones are less rigorous,” Wrinkle of the Labor Rights Fund says. “Some of them [certification bodies], anecdotally, don’t even come and visit the plantations. There’s really not much credibility in it.”
A Shift in the Air
During the annual Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil meeting last November in Sumatra, a coalition of nine unions representing palm oil workers held a large demonstration outside the conference. Eventually, the union activists were allowed in to talk to the general secretary of the RSPO. Once inside, the group pushed for improved working conditions and modifications to the grievance mechanism of the RSPO.
As a result, there have been two shifts in the RSPO: assurances to strengthen the certification process by which palm oil producers can be recognized by the RSPO; and a modification to the grievance process to make it more accessible to all parties.
The week before the November RSPO meeting, a workshop in Bogor, outside of Jakarta, organized by Rainforest Action Network brought together for the first time 40 different organizations along with academics, government representatives, labor unions for a multi-day human rights workshop to talk about the human rights crisis in palm industry. Participants agreed that one of the best strategies for reforming the industry is to target the name brands that use palm oil.
Well-known brands such as Kellogg’s, Kraft, IKEA, McDonald’s, Unilever, and Nestle, all profit by using palm oil as a relatively cheap ingredient. The buying power of these huge corporations, and the clout they hold with palm producers, makes them attractive targets for activist action. For while palm producers are numerous, palm trading is dominated by just a few companies: Cargill, ADM, Wilmar, IOI, Bunge, AAK, Fuji Oils, Romar, and KLK. The emergent strategy is to apply pressure to the companies concerned with public relations, both the small number of trading companies and the The junk food empire is growing. As goes the Cheetos, so goes palm – the rise of the vegetable oil is inextricably tied to the expansion of processed goods. The pattern of palm’s expansion, unfortunately, follows closely that of most commodities in the globalized economic order: exploitation, environmental degradation. Profit for a few, misery for many. All that convenience in the grocery store comes with a steep price, but international NGOS and labor groups are working to expose the unseen cost. Consumers are taking notice. Stories are trickling out. Palm can’t hide much longer, even behind 200 different names.
This post was originally published in Earth Island Journal
Photo Credit: Wakx
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