PENINSULAR MALAYSIA -- An invisible workforce of millions of laborers from some of the poorest corners of Asia toil in the palm oil industry, many of them enduring various forms of exploitation, with the most serious abuses including child labor, outright slavery and allegations of rape, an Associated Press investigation has found.
In Malaysia and Indonesia, these workers tend the heavy reddish-orange palm oil fruit that makes its way into the supply chains of many iconic food and cosmetics companies like Unilever, L’Oreal, Nestle and Procter & Gamble.
Together, the two countries produce about 85 percent of the world’s estimated $65 billion palm oil supply.
Palm oil is virtually impossible to avoid. Often disguised on labels as an ingredient listed by more than 200 names, it can be found in roughly half the products on supermarket shelves and in most cosmetic brands. It’s contained in paints, plywood, pesticides and pills. It’s also present in animal feed, biofuels and even hand sanitizer.
The AP interviewed nearly 130 current and former workers from two dozen palm oil companies who came from eight countries and labored on plantations across wide swaths of Malaysia and Indonesia. Almost all had complaints against their treatment, with some saying they were cheated, threatened, held against their will or forced to work off unsurmountable debts. Others said they were regularly harassed by authorities, swept up in raids and detained in crowded government facilities.
They included members of Myanmar’s long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, who fled ethnic cleansing in their homeland only to be sold into the palm oil industry. Fishermen who escaped years of slavery on boats also described coming ashore in search of help, only to be trafficked onto plantations -- sometimes with police involvement. They said they worked for little or no pay and were trapped for years.
The AP used the most recently published data from producers, traders and buyers of the world’s most-consumed vegetable oil, as well as US Customs records, to link the laborers’ palm oil and its derivatives from the mills that process it to the supply chains of top Western companies like the makers of Oreo cookies, Lysol cleaners and some of Hershey’s chocolatey treats.
AP reporters witnessed some abuses firsthand and reviewed police reports, complaints made to labor unions, videos and photos smuggled out of plantations and local media stories to corroborate accounts wherever possible. In some cases, reporters tracked down people who helped enslaved workers escape. More than a hundred rights advocates, academics, clergy members, activists and government officials also were interviewed. (AP)