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Slavery & Human Rights Abuses in Indonesia's Palm Oil Industry


Ben Skinner is one of the foremost experts on modern slavery, a former Team Mead researcher who went on to write an acclaimed book and a number of in-depth investigations into a prevalent and troubling phenomenon. Ben previously uncovered dirty truths about slave-caught fish that is sold by the supermarkets where many of us shop. His latest, “Indonesia’s Palm Oil Industry Rife With Human-Rights Abuses,” is similarly unsettling:

As it’s grown, the palm oil industry has drawn scrutiny from environmental activists in Europe and the U.S. They decry the destruction of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia to support oil palm expansion, which threatens the natural habitats of endangered species such as pygmy elephants and Sumatran tigers. The human costs of the palm oil boom, however, have been largely overlooked. A nine-month investigation of the industry, including interviews with workers at or near 12 plantations on Borneo and Sumatra—two islands that hold 96 percent of Indonesia’s palm oil operations—revealed widespread abuses of basic human rights. Among the estimated 3.7 million workers in the industry are thousands of child laborers and workers who face dangerous and abusive conditions. Debt bondage is common, and traffickers who prey on victims face few, if any, sanctions from business or government officials….

The experience of “Adam,” a 19-year-old Indonesian from North Sumatra, shows the coercion faced by untold numbers of palm oil workers. (Out of concern for their safety, Adam and another alleged victim asked that their names be changed.) In July 2010 a stocky Indonesian foreman named Atisama Zendrato allegedly lured Adam and his cousin two thousand miles away from their home in Nias, a poor, largely underdeveloped North Sumatran island. He promised to pay them $6 a day (roughly the minimum wage at their destination in Borneo) to drive trucks. Partway through the three-week journey to Berau, East Kalimantan—after Zendrato had transported them and 18 other recruits, some as young as 14, to his house in Duri—he compelled them to sign contracts that spelled out different terms, Adam says.

To hear the stories of plantation workers enslaved and beaten, unpaid and living on ditch water, denied medical care and forced to work with harmful chemicals—read the whole thing. And next time you’re looking at your toothpaste or shaving cream, products which often contain palm oil, ask yourself, “Is there slavery in this?”

[Image of men working on palm oil plantation courtesy Shutterstock]

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