JAKARTA, Indonesia — Palm oil can be found everywhere, from the bar of soap you use daily to Nutella chocolate spread that you enjoy for breakfast. It is the most widely-consumed vegetable oil on the planet.
Indonesia is one of the largest palm oil producers in the world. The country plans to increase its production to 42 million tons by 2020. The rapid growth of the sector, criticized by many environmental groups, comes at yet another cost: child labor.
According to an Amnesty International report, the practice, employed by the largest corporations, continues to plague the palm-oil-rich country.
The report focused on the use of child labor on Indonesian plantations that supply palm oil to Wilmar, the biggest processor and merchandiser of palm and lauric (palm kernel) oil in the world. The company controls over 43 percent of the global palm oil trade.
Papang Hidayat, one of the researchers who participated in the investigation, told The Globe Post that Amnesty International had documented evidence of child participation in hazardous work on plantations owned by two subsidiaries and three suppliers of Wilmar.
“In order to meet their targets, earn bonuses and avoid penalties, workers on all the plantations that we investigated said they get help from their spouses and children to complete certain tasks,” Mr. Hidayat said.
At present, Indonesia produces 35 million tonnes of oil per year. The rapid expansion of palm oil plantations in the country has been driven by an increase in the global demand for vegetable oils used in diverse industries, including biofuel.
Singapore-based Wilmar has its own plantations and mills and owns 15 refineries in Indonesia. Nestlé and Unilever are two of nine global food and household goods companies that purchase palm oil from Wilmar.
According to Amnesty, children as young as eight years old have been working on palm oil plantations. During the right group’s probe conducted in 2016, none of the children were older than 15. Most of them were helping their parents in the afternoons, after attending school, and on weekends and holidays. At the same time, cases of children dropping out of school to help their parents also took place.
“Children carry heavy loads, as they have to carry sacks of loose fruits and some transport wheelbarrows full of heavy palm fruit bunches over uneven terrain and narrow bridges,” the report said. “They run the risk of injuries from repetitive movements, carrying heavy loads and from working in an environment where they are exposed to chemicals.”
Indonesian law prohibits anyone from employing and engaging children in the worst forms of labor. The minimum employment age is 15, but work in hazardous conditions is prohibited until the age of 18.
Mr. Hidayat said that Wilmar had issued an objection statement after the investigation, but pulled it shortly after publishing on the company’s website.
The company told Amnesty that “child labor has no place in Wilmar’s operations, and is a non-negotiable requirement for our suppliers.”
“They deny because in reality there are no contracts with the child laborers,” Mr. Hidayat said. “But the fact is, many children help their parents harvest palms in plantations, which [Wilmar] cannot deny anymore.”
In addition to the practice of child labor, the advocacy group found cases of serious human rights abuse on Wilmar’s plantations and its suppliers, including forced labor, gender discrimination, and other dangerous practices.
In April 2017, Wilmar issued an action plan to address emerging issues and asked Amnesty for feedback.
In November, Wilmar launched a “child protection policy” designed to upgrade and improve access to schools in and around its palm oil estates.
“Wilmar International does not tolerate child labor, exploitation and violence against children,” Jeremy Goon, the Chief Sustainability Officer at Wilmar International, said in a statement at the time.
“[We] Providing the best opportunities in accessing basic education and secondary to all children of staff and employees,” he added.
The company promised to take all necessary measures to protect children from all forms of exploitation and violence.
“All Wilmar staff are responsible for ensuring this policy is implemented at all times, including compliance by contractors and suppliers,” Mr. Goon said.
Nevertheless, Mr. Hidayat said he was worried that the policy would not resolve the root of the real problem.
“The root cause of child labor in oil palm plantations is the exploitative system of work and remuneration applied by the company. As long as the system still exist, so do the child laborers,” he said.
Mr. Hidayat said his team would come back to the field in the near future to update the report.
According to the International Labour Organisation, over 1.5 million children are thought to be working in tobacco, rubber and oil palm plantations in Indonesia.
Child labor practices in the country came under the spotlight when a fireworks factory in Tangerang city, the satellite city of Jakarta, caught fire in October and killed 48 workers, nine of whom were children.
Director General of Occupational Safety at the Manpower Ministry Sugeng Priyanto told The Globe Post that his agency still encounters child labor at palm oil plantations. He said minors get involved in the process to help their parents to meet production targets set by the company.
“The problem of working children [exists] not only in Indonesia. In the future, we have the target of zero child labor. We want children not to work, but go to school,” Mr. Priyanto said.
However, Chairman of the Indonesian Palm Oil Entrepreneurs Association (GAPKI) Joko Supriono argued that it was almost impossible for palm companies to employ children because government regulations clearly prohibit such practices. Nevertheless, he confirmed to The Globe Post that children sometimes work in palm oil plantations that are privately or family owned.
Mr. Supriono said the majority of palm oil farmers have tens of hectares of land, and independent management is a tradition. A whole family, including children, may be participating in the process.
“I have never seen child labor in company’s plantations, but I often see them (children) in family-run plantations,” Mr. Supriono said.