Palm oil is in at least half of the world’s food and personal care products. It’s a cheap source of fat that lengthens shelf life and improves the consistency of everything from cookies to moisturizer. But increased global production has exacted a toll on the environments and communities in which palm oil is produced.
The palm oil industry says it is working on standards to mitigate its impact on people and the planet. But according to a lengthy report released last week by Amnesty International, many companies still haven’t gotten the memo about cleaning up their palm oil supply chains.
The result is an ongoing “disgrace” as deforestation continues, the group said. As lands are cleared for plantations, workers — some younger than teenagers — are pushed to the brink while receiving grossly unfair wages.
The largest offender by far, insists Amnesty, is the Indonesian palm oil giant Wilmar International. The company, which reportedly controls over 40 percent of the world’s palm oil trade, claims its products are sourced and produced “in a responsible and sustainable manner.”
But Amnesty International, which interviewed 120 workers – including children — for its report, says Wilmar is guilty of numerous violations including forced labor, child labor, gender discrimination and worker exploitation. These were not one-off instances that could occur in any complicated global supply chain. Such abuses are “systematic business practices” endemic within the company, its subsidiaries and Wilmar’s suppliers, the London-based human rights group asserted.
The result is that whether a consumer is nibbling on a chocolate bar, brushing their teeth or lathering their hair with shampoo, the odds are high that child labor contributed to that product, Amnesty International said.
The underlying problems in Indonesia’s palm oil industry, the group concludes, is the lax enforcement of the nation’s worker protection laws, along with the informal labor system on which the sector hugely profits. The most brutal work on palm oil plantations is often done by children, who frequently accompany their parents so the family can meet the near impossible quotas set by Wilmar’s suppliers.
It is the stories of these children, many of whom dropped out of school and perform backbreaking work to help their families make ends meet, that Amnesty wants consumers to consider when they shop. As one 14-year-old boy told an Amnesty researcher:
“I have helped my father every day for about two years [since he was 12 years old]. I studied til sixth grade in school. I left school to help my father because he couldn’t do the work anymore. He was sick. I am concerned that I haven’t finished school. … I would like to go back to school, [but] I left because my father was sick and I had to help.”
These ongoing problems do not end with Wilmar. Amnesty accused companies such as the agribusiness multinational ADM of purchasing palm oil with direct ties to child labor. That palm oil, in turn, is sold to food and consumer packaged goods companies such as Colgate-Palmolive, Kellogg and Nestlé. And companies taking a lead on palm oil such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble should not rest easy, either: Amnesty concluded that it is “highly likely” these companies have purchased palm oil tainted by labor and human rights abuses.
Amnesty’s suggestions to stop the ongoing human rights crises due to palm oil are not unreasonable and are a small price to pay considering the massive revenues these companies generate.
To the Indonesian government, a good start would be to introduce an offense of forced labor to the country’s criminal code, Amnesty argued. Wilmar’s customers, such as ADM and Unilever, can use their purchasing power to lean on Wilmar to compensate employees with a fair wage and improve their working conditions – and ensure its suppliers does the same.
And to Wilmar and its competitors, Amnesty called for an end to abusive quotas and piece rates, which often ensnare laborers in work that pays below the country’s minimum wage.
“Something is wrong when nine companies turning over a combined revenue of $325 billion in 2015 are unable to do something about the atrocious treatment of palm oil workers earning a pittance,” concluded Meghna Abraham, an Amnesty business and human rights senior investigator.
In Amnesty’s view, until these changes are made, much of the world’s food and CPG industries are uniformly guilty of one thing: turning a blind eye to the widespread human rights violations in the palm oil sector. Amnesty claimed these revelations are new – but the abuses should have been known to all the players in this lucrative yet destructive business.
Image credit: Craig Morey