Palm Oil

Countries Where Palm Oil is Reportedly Produced with Forced Labor and/or Child Labor

  • Burma (FL)

  • Ecuador (FL, CL)

  • Indonesia (FL, CL)

  • Malaysia (FL, CL)

  • Sierra Leone (CL)

Where is palm oil reportedly produced with trafficking and/or child labor?

According to the U.S. Department of State 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report, palm oil is produced with forced labor or forced child labor in Burma, Ecuador, Indonesia, and Malaysia.[1]

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2016 List of Goods Produced by Forced Labor and Child Labor, palm oil is produced with child labor in Indonesia and Sierra Leone and with forced labor and child labor in Malaysia.[2]

According to the U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report, Ecuador, Indonesia, and Sierra Leone are Tier 2 countries. Malaysia is listed as a Tier 2 Watch List country. Burma is a Tier 3 country.[3]

[1] U.S. Department of State. Trafficking in Persons Report. 2016. https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/258876.pdf

[2] U.S. Department of Labor. List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. 2016 https://www.dol.gov/sites/default/files/documents/ilab/reports/child-labor/findings/TVPRA_Report2016.pdf

[3] U.S. Department of State. Trafficking in Persons Report. 2016. https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/258876.pdf

What does trafficking and/or child labor look like in the production of palm oil?

Human trafficking and labor rights abuses in the palm oil sector are driven by transnational and domestic migration, as well as displacement of local farmers near plantations. Workers in oil palm plantations are particularly vulnerable to modern slavery because of the isolation of palm groves.[4]

Malaysia is a regional destination for international migrants; often labor brokers or employers are implicated in trafficking through such means as confiscation of passports and contract substitution. Verité research revealed that in palm oil plantations, in particular, workers can face significant vulnerability, patterns of abuse and malpractice, and coercion at various stages of the recruitment, migration and employment process. They work long hours for extremely low wages and do physically demanding jobs that leave them susceptible to workplace injuries and poor general health. Many of them are undocumented and constantly face threats of being denounced to the authorities and of being detained and deported. Workers in subcontracting or outsourcing arrangements are particularly vulnerable, as principals and auditing bodies have no insight into their working conditions.[5]

On Malaysian plantations, it is commonplace for employers to take possession of workers’ visas, passports, and work permits, thus restricting the workers’ ability to leave the plantations. If the workers do manage to escape these exploitative conditions, it is police policy to return found workers to the plantations. Additionally, without their papers, it is impossible for escaped workers to find legal work elsewhere in Malaysia.[6]

In 2010, Sawit Watch recorded the following labor abuses in Indonesia, specifically East Kalimantan: physical abuse, intimidation, unpaid wages and unpaid overtime, indebtedness, child labor, lack of employment contracts, unsatisfactory living conditions, and dangerous working conditions, including unprotected work with chemicals.[7]

Worker interviews conducted by Verité in September and October 2012 also revealed that child labor is common on Malaysian and Indonesian palm plantations. Verité research found that children of undocumented plantation workers are especially vulnerable, as they are considered “stateless” and therefore cannot access state-provided education and healthcare.[8] The remote location of palm groves also deters children of plantation workers, documented or undocumented, from attending school.  Moreover, the employment and payment schemes adopted in palm plantations, in which only the father or the male head of the family is contracted directly by the employer, and paid per piece or based on productivity, push the other members of the family, including children, to work in order to increase productivity and pay.[9] The social status of the family can force children into work as well, as there may be no other options for employment. Families may also be motivated to send their children to work if they are impoverished, indebted, or want their child to learn a trade rather than attend an educational institution.[10]

Palm oil production is also increasing in Africa and Latin America, and human trafficking has not been extensively studied in this context. Other abuses, such as the confiscation of land, have been noted in these regions.[11] In many cases, when land is confiscated for large-scale palm plantations, local farmers who were previously engaged in small scale or subsistence farming have no livelihood options other than to seek work on the plantation. This can create vulnerability for trafficking. Verité found indicators of human trafficking among displaced farmers, as well as internal migrants recruited by labor contractors in Guatemala,[12] while Colombian refugees were found to be most vulnerable to trafficking in the Ecuadoran palm oil sector.[13]

[4] Accenture. Exploitative Labor Practices in the Global Palm Oil Industry. 2013.  http://humanityunited.org/pdfs/Modern_Slavery_in_the_Palm_Oil_Industry.pdf

[5] Verité. Sustainable Palm Oil? Promoting New Measures to Combat Risks of Forced Labor and Human Trafficking in Palm Oil Supply Chains. May 2013. http://www.verite.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Palm_White_Paper_May_2013_Final_Draft_0.pdf

[6] Accenture. Exploitative Labor Practices in the Global Palm Oil Industry. 2013.  http://humanityunited.org/pdfs/Modern_Slavery_in_the_Palm_Oil_Industry.pdf

[7] Sawit Watch. What’s Happening in the Indonesian Palm Oil Industry. September 20, 2011. http://sawitwatch.or.id/2011/09/what%E2%80%99s-happen-in-the-indonesian-palm-oil-industry-2/

[8] Verité. Sustainable Palm Oil? Promoting New Measures to Combat Risks of Forced Labor and Human Trafficking in Palm Oil Supply Chains. May 2013. http://www.verite.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Palm_White_Paper_May_2013_Final_Draft_0.pdf

[9] Verité. Sustainable Palm Oil? Promoting New Measures to Combat Risks of Forced Labor and Human Trafficking in Palm Oil Supply Chains. May 2013. http://www.verite.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Palm_White_Paper_May_2013_Final_Draft_0.pdf

[10] Verité. Sustainable Palm Oil? Promoting New Measures to Combat Risks of Forced Labor and Human Trafficking in Palm Oil Supply Chains. May 2013. http://www.verite.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Palm_White_Paper_May_2013_Final_Draft_0.pdf

[11] Maughan, Mark James. Land Grab and Oil Palm in Colombia. May 2011. http://www.future-agricultures.org/papers-and-presentations/conference-papers-2/1130-land-grab-and-oil-palm-in-colombia/file

Lewis, Kim. VOA News.  “Demand for Palm Oil Fuels Land Conflicts in Africa, Southeast Asia.”  November 13, 2014. http://www.voanews.com/a/palm-oil-africa-indonesia-deforestation-land-grab-expansion-forests-indigenous-conflict-/1790043.html

Grain. Planet Palm Oil. September 2014. https://www.grain.org/article/categories/519-planet-palm-oil

[12] Verité. Labor and Human Rights Risk Analysis of the Guatemalan Palm Oil Sector. 2013. http://www.verite.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/RiskAnalysisGuatemalanPalmOilSector_0.pdf

[13] Verité. Labor and Human Rights Risk Analysis of Ecuador’s Palm Oil Sector. May 2016. https://www.verite.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Risk-Analysis-of-Ecuador-Palm-Oil-Sector-Final.pdf

CASE STUDY

Human Trafficking in Palm Oil Production in Indonesia

Journalist E. Benjamin Skinner highlighted the working conditions on a number of palm oil plantations in his article in Bloomberg Businessweek in July 2013. He profiled a worker he calls “Adam,” who was brought two thousand miles from his home by an Indonesian foreman to drive trucks in Borneo for USD 6 a day. However, during travel, the foreman forced the recruits to sign a contract that bound them to a distant Malaysian employer and paid them only USD 5 a day. The foreman reportedly told the recruits that they would not in fact be paid for two years and instead would have to apply for loans from the company for health care and food to supplement their meager rations. The contract also prevented the workers from leaving the plantation without permission and forced workers to remain for the contracted two years. Once Adam reached the plantation, his identity card, school certificate, and deed to a home his village owned collectively were confiscated. He was then forced to work in the newly planted palm groves, spreading fertilizer and spraying herbicides all day instead of driving trucks as originally promised. No protective gear was provided even though the herbicide was known to cause kidney and liver damage. Workers were locked in hot, windowless rooms, given small portions of food often infested with bugs, and provided with fresh water only once a month. Any workers who tried to escape were brought back and beaten severely.[14]

[14] Skinner, E. Benjamin. “Indonesia’s Palm Oil Industry Rife with Human-Rights Abuses.” Bloomberg Businessweek. July 18, 2013. http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-07-18/indonesias-palm-oil-industry-rife-with-human-rights-abuses

CASE STUDY

Labor Rights Abuses in Palm Oil Production in Guatemala

Verité (2013) found a number of human rights and labor risks related to the palm sector in Sayaxché, Petén, Guatemala. Local farmers were displaced by land grabs linked to large plantations. Subsistence farmers who sold their land due to coercion, deceit, pressure, or offers of large up-front payments had few options other than working for the palm companies that had obtained huge swaths of land in Sayaxché. The loss of land for subsistence agriculture and a lack of other employment opportunities in Sayaxché created a local labor force that either had to continue working on palm plantations under poor conditions or move out of the area to search for other work.[15]

The other group of vulnerable workers in Sayaxché consisted of migrant workers brought in from rural impoverished areas. These workers were typically hired by labor contractors, some of whom deceived them about their conditions of work and charged them up-front recruitment fees and deductions of up to 20 percent of their pay. Furthermore, migrant workers were generally hired on one- to three-month contracts; during the entire duration of their contracts, they did not leave the plantations on which they were housed. Reports indicated that workers were not paid if they left their employment before their contracts were finished. Many of these migrant workers’ identity documents were retained, which prevented them from leaving or filing legal complaints against their employers.[16]

Verité researchers found a number of indicators of human trafficking in Guatemala’s palm sector. Indicators of lack of consent included induced indebtedness, deception or false promises about types and terms of work, withholding and non-payment of wages, and retention of identity documents or other valuable personal possessions. Indicators of menace of penalty included physical violence against workers or family or close associates, sexual violence, imprisonment or other physical confinement, dismissal from current employment, exclusion from future employment, exclusion from community and social life, deprivation of food, shelter or other necessities, and shifts to even worse working conditions.[17]

[15] Verité. Labor and Human Rights Risk Analysis of the Guatemalan Palm Oil Sector. 2013. http://www.verite.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/RiskAnalysisGuatemalanPalmOilSector_0.pdf

[16] Verité. Labor and Human Rights Risk Analysis of the Guatemalan Palm Oil Sector. 2013. http://www.verite.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/RiskAnalysisGuatemalanPalmOilSector_0.pdf

[17] Verité. Labor and Human Rights Risk Analysis of the Guatemalan Palm Oil Sector. 2013. http://www.verite.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/RiskAnalysisGuatemalanPalmOilSector_0.pdf

CASE STUDY

Indicators of Forced Labor among Migrant Workers in Ecuador

Verité research (2015) found that Colombian migrants and refugees in Ecuador had been deceived by palm companies and labor brokers about the working and living conditions on palm plantations, luring them into jobs with far worse pay and conditions than expected. Palm workers were reportedly paid as little as a sixth of the amount originally promised to them and were forced to work overtime, sometimes without pay. Workers also faced limits on their freedom of movement and communication, including curfews, constant surveillance, and supervision by armed guards. Workers depended on their employers not only for their incomes, but also for food and shelter, which restricted workers’ ability to leave. Furthermore, some workers fell into debt due to deductions for food and housing that were often of poor quality. Some employers withheld workers’ wages and threatened workers with physical violence, reporting of undocumented workers to authorities, and worsening of already poor working conditions in order to prevent them from seeking assistance or protesting unfair treatment.[18]

[18] Verité. Labor and Human Rights Risk Analysis of Ecuador’s Palm Oil Sector. May 2016. https://www.verite.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Risk-Analysis-of-Ecuador-Palm-Oil-Sector-Final.pdf

Palm Oil Production and Supply Chain

Palm can be grown on large plantations or in smallholder schemes. In Southeast Asia, most palm comes from large-scale plantations. Large palm oil companies, such as Kuala Lumpur Kepong (KLK), Sime Darby, and Wilmar, usually have their own plantations, mills, and processing plants.[19]

In South America and Africa, the majority of palm comes from smallholder farms. Independent smallholders can seek out the highest available prices for mill purchase of their product; however, they may lack market access including credit for inputs. “Supported smallholders” are tied to mills through a variety of relationship models. Generally, they receive access to credit and/or technical assistance in return for a promise to sell their product. Specifics of these schemes are highly variable based on regional context.[20]

After three years of applying herbicides and pesticides, weeding, and cultivating the growth of oil palm trees, workers must harvest the fruit. Fruit is removed from trees by hand using a sharp tool such as a scythe. Loose fruits are also collected from the ground.[21] A palm bunch can weigh 55 pounds and contain 3,000 fruits. Harvest periods typically last fewer than 48 hours.[22]

The fruit is transported to mills after harvesting, and then it is passed on processing plants, where palm oil is produced from the flesh and palm kernel oil is produced from the kernel of the fruit. For every ten tons of palm oil, one ton of palm kernel oil is produced.[23] Oil may be further processed to produce derivatives of varying densities. The derivatives may also be blended with other vegetable oils.[24] Fifty million tons of palm vegetable oil are produced every year.[25]

[19] Verité. Sustainable Palm Oil? Promoting New Measures to Combat Risks of Forced Labor and Human Trafficking in Palm Oil Supply Chains. May 2013. http://www.verite.org/sites/default/files/images/Palm_White_Paper_May_2013_Final_Draft_0.pdf

[20] Mahmud, Adeeb; Rehrig, Matthew; Hills, Greg. Improving the Livelihoods of Palm Oil Smallholders: the Role of the Private Sector. 2010. http://www.fsg.org/publications/improving-livelihoods-palm-oil-smallholders

[21] Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN. Palm Oil http://www.fao.org/docrep/006/t0309e/T0309E05.htm

[22] Skinner, E. Benjamin. “Indonesia’s Palm Oil Industry Rife with Human-Rights Abuses.” Bloomberg Businessweek. July 18, 2013. http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-07-18/indonesias-palm-oil-industry-rife-with-human-rights-abuses

[23] Malaysian Palm Oil Council. Processing Flow Chart. http://www.mpoc.org.my/Processing_Flow_Chart.aspx

[24] GreenPalm. What is Palm Oil Used In?  http://greenpalm.org/about-palm-oil/what-is-palm-oil

[25] Verité. Sustainable Palm Oil? Promoting New Measures to Combat Risks of Forced Labor and Human Trafficking in Palm Oil Supply Chains. May 2013. http://www.verite.org/sites/default/files/images/Palm_White_Paper_May_2013_Final_Draft_0.pdf

How do Trafficking and/or Child Labor in Palm Oil Production Affect Me?

Palm oil – or its derivatives – is present in up to 50 percent of all products in grocery stores.[26] Sometimes labeled in products as “vegetable oil,” it is used in products including fuels, soaps and shampoos, processed foods, cereals, baked goods, margarine, cosmetics, confectionary items, cleaning products, detergents, toothpaste, and candles. Since 1970, the global demand for vegetable oils has increased by over one hundred metric tons. This has been attributed to the use of vegetable oils in consumer products, as well as an increasing demand for biodiesel fuels in developed countries. Since 1990, global consumption of palm oil has increased fivefold.[27]

Growth in India and China contributes to the ever increasing demand for oil, which the World Wildlife Fund reports may double by 2020.[28]

[26] The Economist. “The other oil spill.” June 24, 2010. http://www.economist.com/node/16423833

[27] Skinner, E. Benjamin. “Indonesia’s Palm Oil Industry Rife with Human-Rights Abuses.” Bloomberg Businessweek. July 18, 2013. http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-07-18/indonesias-palm-oil-industry-rife-with-human-rights-abuses

[28] World Wildlife Fund (WWF). About Palm Oil http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/footprint/agriculture/palm_oil/

Environmental Consequences of Palm Oil Production

Palm oil production is linked with substantial environmental consequences, notably through widespread deforestation, which leads to the destruction of habitats for endangered species, such as orangutans, and contributes to climate change.[29] According to a 2009 report, “the creation of oil plantations in Malaysia is regarded as the main cause of the air pollution that has been affecting many neighboring countries in Southeast Asia.”[30] As palm production spreads to Latin America and Africa, deforestation is increasing in palm-producing regions. Greenpeace has described the company Herakles Farms in Cameroon as illegally logging and clearing forest.[31] Oxfam has stated that the deforestation resulting from the conversion of forest to farmland in Indonesia would require “420 years of biofuel production to pay back the carbon debt.”[32]

[29] Greenpeace. Herakles Farms in Cameroon: A Showcase in Bad Palm Oil Production. 2013.  http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/wp-content/uploads/legacy/Global/usa/planet3/PDFs/HeraklesCrimeFile.pdf

[30] O’Sullivan, Laurence. “Palm Oil Growth Damages Rainforest Environment.” Suite 101. March 15, 2009. https://www.scribd.com/document/280879341/Palm-Oil-Growth-Damages-Rainforest-Environment

[31] Greenpeace. Herakles Farms in Cameroon: A Showcase in Bad Palm Oil Production. 2013.  http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/Global/usa/planet3/PDFs/Forests/HeraklesCrimeFile.pdf

[32] Oxfam. Another Inconvenient truth: How Biofuel Policies are Deepening Poverty and Accelerating Climate Change. June 26, 2008. http://www.oxfam.org/en/grow/policy/another-inconvenient-truth

EXAMPLES

What Governments, Corporations, and Others are Doing

In 2004, companies and other stakeholders created the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which has a certification system for sustainable palm oil.  The RSPO developed standards for environmental and social responsibility, against which growers and millers are audited for certification. The RSPO voted in April 2013 to create a new set of principles and criteria that included stronger provisions on labor, employment, human rights and business ethics.[33] The Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) “aims to support the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) through building on RSPO standards, and demonstrating innovation in implementing RSPO existing standards as well as additional POIG standards.”[34]

Hamana Child Aid Society is an organization in Borneo focused on educating the children of migrant workers employed in the palm oil industry. These children are extremely vulnerable to child labor because they lack legal documents and are therefore unable to attend school. Hamana Child Aid Society runs 128 learning centers with a total of 12,000 students. The organization is funded by foreign donors, including the European Union.[35]

[33] Verité. Sustainable Palm Oil? Promoting New Measures to Combat Risks of Forced Labor and Human Trafficking in Palm Oil Supply Chains. May 2013. 
http://www.verite.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Palm_White_Paper_May_2013_Final_Draft_0.pdf

[34] Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG). How to join POIG. November 2015. http://d2ouvy59p0dg6k.cloudfront.net/downloads/poig_brochure_november_2015.pdf

[35] Motlagh, Jason. “Borneo: An Expat Teacher on a Mission.” Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. January 23, 2013. http://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/borneo-malaysia-sabah-humana-child-aid-plantation-education-mission

 

LEARN MORE

Watch “The Price of Palm Oil” by Al Jazeera.

Read a report by Verité on new measures to combat risks of forced labor and human trafficking in palm oil supply chains.

Read a report by Amnesty International about trafficking in Malaysia.

Read Benjamin Skinner’s article “Indonesia’s Palm Oil Industry Rife with Human-Rights Abuses” for a detailed account of human trafficking on a palm plantation. 

Read this Humanity United report on exploitative labor in the palm industry.