Palm oil plantations: Child labour and other abuses exposed

Palm oil plantations of Malaysia and Indonesia are worked by “child labour and outright slavery,” a new investigation has found.

The two countries supply 85 percent of the world’s palm oil, which is used in most cosmetic brands and around half of all supermarket products. Campaigns to raise awareness of its devastating ecological impact - as the plantations have eaten away at rainforest habitats, threatening to extirpate endangered animals such as the orangutan - have been limited by the ingredient’s disguise under over 200 names on labels.

But a probe by Associated Press that interviewed almost 130 current and former workers found “almost all” complained of being “cheated, threatened, held against their will or forced to work off unsurmountable debts.”

Many were migrant workers, including from Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority - some of whom had fled Burmese troops only to be sold into the palm oil industry. Others were fishermen who had been enslaved on boats but, after escaping ashore, were trafficked onto the plantations.

Big Western financial institutions like JPMorgan Chase, Deutsche Bank and the Vanguard Group” were named as heavy investors in the industry, not just directly but via third parties such as the Malayan Banking Berhad or Maybank.

This has been the industry’s hidden secret,” said Gemma Tillack of the US based Rainforest Action Network. “The buck stops with the banks. It is their funding that makes this system of exploitation possible.”

Plantations hire brokers to supply labour, meaning many “foreign workers end up fleeced by a syndicate of recruiters and corrupt officials,” the report says. Company officials often seize their passports, so they are unable to return home.

Investigators observed children working in the fields, interviewed women who were paid nothing and women and children who reported being raped while working.

The Malaysian Palm Oil Association said the findings were “not true,” while the Indonesian Palm Oil Association said employers found breaching labour laws could be sanctioned.

Palm oil users Unilever, L'Oreal, Nestle and Procter & Gamble all said they do not tolerate human rights abuses, while Deutsche Bank “reiterated its support for human rights” and JPMorgan Chase declined to comment.