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Hidden abuse: The persistence of slave labor within Southeast Asia’s palm oil industry

Hidden abuse: The persistence of slave labor within Southeast Asia’s palm oil industry

Lucrative as it is for multi-national corporations, the palm oil industry has incited numerous humanitarian concerns in recent years. Palm oil giants have increasingly acted at the expense of those employed on their plantations for the sake of satisfying a rising global demand for oil palm – the same fruit whose large-scale cultivation is destroying invaluable rainforest habitats that shelter endangered species such as the Sumatran orangutan.

Chronicled in the Wall Street Journal, Mohammad Rubel’s recent revelation of the abuses he suffered at the hands of palm oil affiliates has served as a vivid reminder of the human costs of the industry.

Palm oil companies often solicit the aid of labor contractors who are responsible for recruiting low-wage workers for their plantations. As a result of a booming need for unskilled workers, the practice of labor recruitment in the palm oil industry has become entangled in serious allegations citing human trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage, as well as child labor. The Arakan Project, which tracks migration through the Bay of Bengal, estimates roughly 50,000 individuals led by human smugglers have suffered the perilous, and often illicit, journey to Malaysia in the past two years.

It is precisely these atrocities that have earned oil palm plantations charges of “modern-day slavery”— and appropriately so. Mohammad Rubel’s report to the WSJ, which details his migration from Bangladesh to Malaysia, exposes the inhumane conditions, reminiscent of those on the horrific 18th century Middle Passage, that he and other passengers endured for several weeks. The following is an excerpt of his account:

“… armed men operating the boat rationed food and water so the packed-in migrants would make fewer trips to the toilet, and beat them when they asked for more. The heat and stench were overpowering, he said, and he saw dozens die. At one point, he said, he watched as the traffickers threw migrants’ bodies into the sea, after slitting open their abdomens so they would sink. After three weeks, the boat reached southern Thailand. Mr. Rubel said he and hundreds of others were put in crowded camps, sleeping entangled in one another’s limbs behind coils of barbed wire.”

As a survivor of the voyage, Rubel was subsequently funneled to Jempol, Malaysia where he found work as an employee of one of the labor contractors at a plantation owned by Felda Global Ventures, the largest palm oil producer in Malaysia. Appallingly, Felda is certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an international organization established to promote a sustainable standard for palm oil production. Since arriving in December, Rubel has not been compensated for his seven-day-a-week toil, sawing off oil palm fruit bunches to be processed at the local mill.

Trafficked migrant workers have little recourse in the face of exploitation — being in Malaysia illegally and having their passport taken away by employers makes them vulnerable to threats of imprisonment or deportation. Originally lured by promises of good wages by his smugglers, Rubel stated, “If I had known what was waiting, I would never have left home.”

Unfortunately, Rubel’s story is not unique. In 2013, a 19-year old “Adam,” who did not reveal his real name for fear of his safety, told Bloomberg Businessweek of the forced labor and extortion he suffered at the hands of a fraudulent labor recruiter. After being promised work driving trucks for $6 a day, Adam, along with other recruits — some as young as 14 — were on their way to East Kalimantan when the recruiter compelled them to sign contracts outlining vastly different terms. Agreeing to these new terms entailed being “obliged to do any work as asked by the employer” without the freedom to choose the type of work at a lower rate of $5 a day. Additionally, the company would not pay them for the first two years, but would “loan” them up to $16 a month for basic health care.

The workers were entered into a strictly monitored forced labor system at a plantation owned by Batu Kawan, a major shareholder of palm oil company, Kuala Lumpur Kepong. The conditions at the plantation were gruesome: tight, windowless barracks, meager, sometimes infested portions of food, and inadequate supply of clean water. Those who attempted escape and failed were punished severely. Adam and his cousin were some of the few successful in their escape. When another escaped worker was caught and beaten a month later, the authorities were alerted to the abuses at the plantation, which only then finally garnered some attention from KLK officials.

The narratives of Rubel and “Adam” have begun to shine a harsher light on some of the flaws embedded in the core of RSPO’s mission, particularly its weakness in detecting and preventing members’ violations of human rights. Darrel Webber, the RSPO’s secretary-general, expressed that he was “unaware” of any worker abuses on Felda plantations but would investigate them. “Unaware,” too, were the senior KLK officials of the poor treatment of workers on their plantations.

Indonesia’s production of palm oil, exhibiting remarkable growth in the past three decades, rose to 33.5 million metric tons in 2014. The boom in the palm oil industry, fueled by demand from the U.S. and China, has had significant implications for the industrial cultivation of palm oil and the labor force behind it. Foreigners now comprise most of this force (nearly 85 percent of Felda’s plantation workers are foreigners), while thousands of child laborers are also among the 3.7 million workers in the industry who are employed in these abusive work environments.

And while palm oil can be a single convenient emblem upon which these atrocities can be pinned — most significantly behind the commodity’s destructive production are the nations and governing bodies that have put the interests of international corporations before the needs of their citizens in hopes of gaining foreign investment. When profit takes precedence over corporate (and basic human) responsibility, it allows terrible brutalities — like the trafficking of thousands of people in inhumane, below-deck confines — to persist.

Workers too easily fall prey to exploitation owing to the stark power imbalance between laborers and corporate officials. The ongoing exclusion of those whose labor is critical to the productivity of plantations from decision-making processes should simply no longer be permissible.

Ashley Wong, an undergrad at Duke University, has been interning with Friends of the Earth’s Land grabs, Forests and Finance campaign since June of this year. Ashley contributes this blog as a parting contribution. – Jeff Conant, international forests campaigner

Image credit: James Anderson, World Resources Institute, Creative Commons (top)

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