Human rights abuses in your shopping basket
Ben & Jerry’s, Colgate, Dove, Pantene and KitKat are just some of the thousands of popular brands that use palm oil. But where does that palm oil come from?
Palm oil is a commodity in massive demand for its use in a wide range of basic products from ice-cream and chocolate to shampoo and toothpaste.
Most companies will tell you that the palm oil they use is “sustainable” – meaning that it is environmentally friendly and the workers are treated fairly.
But an Amnesty International investigation has revealed that some of the world’s biggest companies – including Colgate, Nestlé and Unilever – are contributing to child labour and wretched conditions for other workers on palm oil plantations.
Abuses are also taking place on plantations run by companies who are certified as “sustainable”, meaning even brands you buy marked as made with “sustainable” or “certified palm oil” could be tainted by human rights abuses.
This means that much of the palm oil in the products in your shopping basket could be tainted by human rights abuses, even when the label says “sustainable”.
I DON’T GO TO SCHOOL…I CARRY THE SACK WITH THE LOOSE FRUIT...IT IS DIFFICULT TO CARRY IT, IT IS HEAVY...MY HANDS HURT AND MY BODY ACHES.A 10-year-old boy who helps his father collect palm fruit
IN DEMAND – THE PALM OIL SECTOR
of common food and consumer products contain palm oil
tonnes of palm oil consumed in 2015
value of 2014 palm oil imports by the EU, the world’s 2nd biggest consumer
Harvester using dodos (short pole with a chisel used to harvest fruits from trees up to three metres tall). Credit: Amnesty International/Watchdoc
Workers take palm fruit to a mill. Credit: Amnesty International/WatchDoc
The price of palm oil
Global demand for palm oil makes it a lucrative business, but at the price of workers’ misery. Amnesty International investigated the Indonesian palm oil plantations that supply the world’s biggest palm oil trader, Wilmar, and found forced labour, low pay, exposure to toxic chemicals and discrimination against women – employed as casual workers, without pensions and medical insurance.
To meet the food and household sectors’ hunger for a cheap and versatile crop that can be used to manufacture anything, workers are pressurized and threatened to work ever-longer hours, doing physically demanding tasks such as manually cutting fruit from trees 20 metres tall.
To get paid, workers have to cut, carry, spray and collect large numbers of palm fruits to meet ridiculously high targets. This can leave workers in significant physical pain, and they also face a range of penalties for things like not picking up palm fruits from the ground and picking unripe fruit.
It is difficult work because the target is horrifying…My feet hurt, my hands hurt and my back hurts after doing the work.A worker on a plantation
Child transporting a wheelbarrow full of heavy palm fruit bunches over a narrow bridge on a plantation that was investigated in North Sumatra, name of company and location withheld for safety. Credit: Amnesty International/Watchdoc
Amnesty International / WatchDoc
Children as young as eight are doing hazardous, hard physical work on palm oil plantations.
This is because palm oil workers have to meet such gruelling targets to get paid enough to live on, many bring their families with them to help.
Most of the children help their parents in the afternoons, after attending school, and on weekends and holidays. However, some have dropped out of school to help their parents and work all day long, picking up and carrying palm fruits.
The children work without any safety equipment, in an environment full of hazards including falling branches and exposure to dangerous chemicals.
The physically demanding and tiring work can injure young children. They carry heavy sacks of palm fruit that can weigh from 12 to 25kg. They manoeuvre wheelbarrows heavy with fruit over narrow bridges.
I left school to help my father because he couldn’t do the work anymore. He was sick...I would have liked to have gone to school to become smarter. I would like to become a teacher.A 14-year-old boy who harvests palm fruits
FRUITS OF THEIR LABOUR
Sprayers working without protective equipment on a plantation owned by a Wilmar supplier. They are filling bottles with undiluted chemicals for each worker to carry, without gloves or goggles. Name of company withheld for safety. Photo credit: Private.
Yohanna, 45 years old, was employed as a ‘foreman’ in a plant maintenance unit. She was splashed in the face with a paraquat-based herbicide while trying to load a tank on her bike. The chemical caused corneal erosion and inflammation in Yohanna’s eye. The delay in getting adequate treatment led to an infection which damaged her optic nerve. Credit: Amnesty International
Exposure to toxic chemicals causes terrible suffering
Life for a palm oil worker can go from bad to worse if they are exposed to the toxic pesticides and fertilizers used to maintain the lucrative palm fruit plants.
Workers who spray toxic chemicals suffer vomiting, stomach pain and nails falling off their fingers. Worse still, the faulty equipment they use mean many spilled the chemicals on their hands and backs on a regular basis resulting in severe injuries.
One worker, Yohanna, was splashed in the face with toxic fertilizer while trying to load a spraying tank on her bike. The accident caused permanent nerve damage, blindness in one eye, dizziness and headaches.
I can’t see through the eye. I get headaches in part of my head, when I do, my eye feels really swollen. I still get a bit dizzy. If I use my right hand a lot, my head hurts. I would just like to walk stable like I used to.Yohanna, a palm oil worker
The fertilizers and pesticides cause so much damage because they contain paraquat, a toxic chemical banned in the EU. Wilmar says it phased out paraquat in 2012, but workers on the plantation are still using it, with tragic consequences.
INDONESIA’S PALM OIL SECTOR
of the world’s palm oil comes from Indonesia
Daily wage for some workers
palm oil workers in Indonesia
TELL CORPORATE GIANTS TO STOP CHILD LABOUR
Nine multinational companies confirmed they get palm oil from Wilmar’s Indonesia operations, but only two would confirm which products the palm oil goes in. Tweet at your favourite brands to ask companies if they are using palm oil tainted by human rights abuses.