The searing report linking popular NZ brands to sexual abuse and slavery


Some of New Zealand’s most popular cosmetic products are linked to severe abuse, sexual assault, and endemic health problems among Malaysian and Indonesian palm oil workers, according to a new investigation by the Associated Press.

It’s the follow-up to another investigation in September which revealed that many of the same palm oil plantations made use of child labour and outright slavery.

Palm oil products have come under fire in New Zealand many times before, but usually, for the devastating environmental impact the plantations can have.

Clearing land for any tropical crop often necessitates clearing hectares of native forest, home to endangered species such as tigers and orangutans.

While a huge number of goods sold in New Zealand are potentially linked to these practices, there is no labelling or certification requirement for products which use palm oil, nor any real legal ramifications for companies which benefit from slave labour and other forms of abuse.

Tracking palm oil from the worst offending plantations all the way to supermarket shelves is extremely difficult, but there’s no doubt that palm oil is a mainstay of some of New Zealand’s most popular cosmetics and skincare products.

The reports also cast further doubts about the role of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an NGO which promotes “sustainable” palm oil products, but which was alleged to have ignored instances of worker abuse.

How palm oil came to be in everything

Palm oil is mainly extracted from the African oil palm, a tree which was brought by western colonists to many of the world’s tropical climates. The reddish pulp is milled, refined, bleached and deodorised into an ingredient in a huge number of products.

Once just one of many oils used worldwide, western industrialists soon found palm oil had near endless versatility. T

he palms produce more oil per hectare than any other crop while delivering a product that stays solid at room temperature, rarely goes off, doesn’t smoke when cooked, forms a lather in soaps, and even raises the freezing temperature of ice cream.

About a third of the world’s palm oil is burnt by trucks as a component of biodiesel.

Needless to say, this cheaply produced oil generated huge demand, and western colonists in the tropics cleared vast swathes of forest for palm oil plantations throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Nowadays, 85% of all palm oil is produced by corporations in Indonesia and Malaysia.

It has been estimated that each person on Earth consumes an average of just under 8 kilograms of palm oil every year, and much more if we consider cosmetics or fuel.

New Zealand is a major importer of palm oil, not only inside various products but also as a raw resource.

Dairy giant Fonterra imports more Palm Kernel Expeller, a palm oil byproduct and low-cost cattle feed, than any other company in the world.

Slavery and child labour on palm oil plantations

Millions of labourers work in palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia.

The first AP report focused primarily on workers who are undocumented migrants, often from the poorest corners of Asia, trafficked by their employers and living in fear of police raids.

One man, working for the state-owned Felda corporation in Malaysia, said his bosses confiscated and lost his passport, leaving him stranded and forced to sleep on the open ground of the plantation, constantly in fear of an attack by tigers.

His story was by no means unique: of the 130 workers interviewed in the report, nearly all reported similar experiences of being trafficked across borders. Many became indentured labourers, forced to work off debts to their employers for helping them enter the country.

However, the vast majority of palm oil workers are Indonesians who cross the porous border into Malaysia to take the low-paid jobs that Malaysians won’t take.

The best-case scenario is to find a job making $2 a day, but many end up saddled with huge debts, or are forced to work for nothing under threat of having their passports destroyed.

Even under ideal conditions, working on the plantations is tough, dangerous work.

Workers must carry long sickles on poles to hack off palm branches large enough to injure or kill those below.

To meet the high quotas set by the companies, many workers bring on their families as helpers, where they act as unpaid labourers picking up the red pulp from the ground.

The first AP report was the most comprehensive investigation ever conducted into the industry, with workers from the majority of palm oil companies surveyed.

The report found that abuses and indentured labour were common in companies that had been given a seal of approval by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a watchdog organisation which promotes environmental justice and better conditions for workers.

Women workers on plantations

The most recent AP investigation into palm oil plantations was much more specific in its goals, focusing on the treatment of women workers alone. The report found that women working in the palm plantations were much more likely to be abused by bosses, and found a slew of reproductive health problems endemic to the industry.

Investigators interviewed over 200 workers, government employees, activists and lawyers who confirmed that abuse, including sexual assault, was widespread across the industry.

An Indonesian official from the government’s women and children’s office in West Kalimantan province said the isolated location of palm plantations made sexual assaults common. In most cases, these were perpetrated by the plantation bosses and managers.

In addition to assault, many women workers reported health problems, often the result of chemicals used in tropical agriculture.

One woman said she suffered from fevers, coughing and nose bleeds after spraying pesticides without protective equipment.

Another woman mourned the babies lost through late-term miscarriages after being forced to carry heavy loads. Indeed miscarriages and infertility are alarmingly common, as women are forced to wade in the chemical runoff and carry loads so heavy that their wombs can collapse.

The report also notes that despite the enormous issues facing women workers, the RSPO has never investigated reports of abuse. Continue reading

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