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  • Ryan Kane

Chains Under the Label

To meet the growing global demand for cheaply produced palm oil, some producers are relying on child labor, forced labor, and forms of modern-day slavery.


85%+ of palm oil is harvested on plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia and most of the workers on these plantations are undocumented foreign workers many of whom are children.

These plantation workers often endure unsafe conditions and are paid labor rates far below acceptable minimum wage. Some undocumented workers have been fooled by labor brokers and are literally trapped in debt-bondage like situations.





Producers and users of palm oil including major brands such as Unilever, Kraft, IKEA, and McDonalds have known about human rights violations for years. However, rather than openly discuss and address the human rights abuses, the industry has chosen to address problems through a confidential, 75% industry-governed voluntary certification system: The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The RSPO "stamp of approval" is intended to indicate that approved plantations are free of conflict palm oil but it is often meaningless.


The International Labor Rights Forum found clear disregard for human rights at some of the plantations the RSPO certified as “sustainable.” The International Labor Rights Forum and their partner Sawit Watch, recently analyzed the workforce at three RSPO certified palm oil plantations in Indonesia. They uncovered serious human rights abuses at each of the three plantations including: labor trafficking, child labor, unprotected work with hazardous chemicals, and long-term abuse of temporary contracts. The identified violations are in direct opposition of the RSPO standard itself.


Is it an ineffective system or purposeful direct deception? Regardless, it is clear that the existing system is failing to protect workers.


On August 15, 2019, a coalition of labor, environmental, and social justice non-governmental organizations ( NGOs) filed a formal complaint with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) related to the use of forced labor used at leading Malaysian palm oil production companies. Malaysia is currently the 2nd largest producer of palm oil globally with Indonesia being the largest.


This complaint specifically sought to halt the importation of palm oil products into the United States that was produced by FGV Holdings Berhad. FGV is one of Malaysia’s largest palm oil companies and is a joint venture partner of Procter & Gamble.


The complaint cites recent field reports documenting cases of forced labor and human trafficking on FGV-owned palm oil plantations across Malaysia. Under the Tariff Act of 1930, U.S. Customs is required to deny entry of any goods that arrive at U.S. ports if there is reasonable cause to believe they contain materials made with forced labor.


The complaint calls out that there are an estimated 4 million undocumented migrant workers as compared to 2 million documented workers. The Malaysian Agricultural Planters Association (MAPA) reports that foreign labor on plantations comprises 80% of the total, and the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) databases yield an even higher level, at 84%. Migrant workers are, by law, forced to remain with one employer which discourage workers from leaving dangerous work environments where they may be trapped into forced labor conditions. FGV Holdings Berhad and its contractors are accused of luring migrants to plantations, forcing them to give up their passports, forbidding them from leaving FGV farms, and requiring them to sign “employment” contracts in languages that they do not understand.


The palm oil industry can no longer hide from these accusations as the issue is receiving considerable press including coverage in a recent Washington Post article Mars, Nestle, other food companies face complaints of forced labor at palm oil supplier.


What to do? Be an advocate, be responsible and know how the products you use can contribute to modern slavery, climate change, and the mass extinction of numerous species.

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