Slavery in the Palm Oil Industry

By Cassidy Slater

Palm oil is found in approximately 50 percent of common grocery and household products. Since 1980, palm oil production has increased significantly and is expected to double again by 2050. Indonesia and Malaysia are the two largest exporters of palm oil, together producing 84 percent of the world’s supply and employing over three million workers.

Though touted as an economic stimulator, this growing industry has been the subject of major environmental and human rights violations, including the use of forced labor from adults and children.

Human rights violations in palm oil production has received little attention from the global economy, probably due to its complicated supply chain. Hidden in some of the world’s most rural rainforests, palm oil plantations often depend on forced labor, benefiting from the impunity that comes with this invisibility. These plantations often push indigenous people from the land they own, leaving entire communities with no choice but to work on the plantations.

As consumers and governments become more concerned with supply chain responsibility and propose legislation to eradicate forced labor in imported goods, reports are now shining a light on the transgressions on palm oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia.

The 2016 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report ranked Malaysia and Indonesia as Tier 2 countries, indicating that they failed to meet the minimum standards established by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and showed no significant efforts to correct this behavior. A Department of Labor report released in September identified palm oil to be among the commodities most likely produced using child labor.

The governments in Malaysia and Indonesia rely on palm oil to stimulate economic development, providing little financial incentive for government crackdowns on the industrie’s use of forced labor. Meanwhile laborers face harsh and dangerous working conditions with little to no access to justice.

Workers struggle to survive and sustain their families as plantation owners pay them little to no wages. Palm oil producers often utilize financial punishments when employees make mistakes or fail to meet arbitrary work targets. Laborers interviewed by Amnesty International admitted to needing to make their children and spouses join them in the fields to meet targets for work to avoid these financial consequences.

Children involved in palm oil production are made to carry large loads of heavy fruit, weed fields, and spend hours every day bent over collecting fruit from the plantation floor. Heat exhaustion as well as cuts and bruises from climbing thorny palms are commonplace. To avoid being culpable for profiting from child labor, companies do not officially recognize children as laborers and the children receive little or no pay for their grueling work.

The U.S. government has some tools to pressure companies importing palm oil from Malaysia and Indonesia and require plantations to implement policies to protect workers. Section 307 of the Tariff Act bans the import of any goods produced with forced labor from being imported to the United States. Per this definition, most palm oil imported from Malaysia and Indonesia should be subject to exclusion and seizure.

The ban only lasts until a producer proves that their its was not produced with forced labor, and then it is allowed back into U.S. markets, incentivizing companies to encourage producers to implement strong best practices that protect their supply chains from forced labor.

As a top consumer of palm oil, the United States has the unique opportunity to leverage its purchasing power to pressure producers of palm oil to implement and enforce fair labor practices. By holding these countries accountable for their failure to meet the minimum standards to combat trafficking, companies and the government alike can help correct these workers’ suffering. Fully enforcing the Tariff Act and raising public awareness of the human rights violations in this incredibly common commodity is the first step in furthering our commitment to eradicating modern slavery.


Published on March 1, 2017


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