A new Amnesty International report says palm oil is being produced under inhumane conditions in Indonesia. But producers say they cannot change the situation by themselves.
Rights group Amnesty International is accusing nine multinationals of buying palm oil from plantations in Indonesia engaged in "shocking" labor practices.
An Amnesty report released Wednesday says Unilever, Nestle and Procter & Gamble are among nine household names contributing to abuse including child and forced labor.
The group investigated plantations in Indonesia run by the world's biggest palm oil grower, Singapore's Wilmar. It said children as young as eight were working there to help their parents under hazardous conditions. Many women were also forced to work long hours for low wages without pensions or health insurance, it said.
Indonesia is the world's largest producer of palm oil, which is used in many foods and cosmetics, as well as biofuels. Amnesty cast doubt on multinationals' promises that they used sustainable palm oil - despite three of five investigated suppliers being certified as such.
"There is nothing sustainable about palm oil that is produced using child labor and forced labor. The abuses discovered within Wilmar's palm oil operations are not isolated incidents but are systemic and a predictable result of the way Wilmar does business," Amnesty investigator Meghna Abraham said.
"Something is wrong when nine companies turning over a combined revenue of $325 billion in 2015 are unable to do something about the atrocious treatment of palm oil workers earning a pittance."
Amnesty said it spoke to 120 workers who work on palm plantations owned by two Wilmar subsidiaries and three Wilmar suppliers in Kalimantan and Sumatra in Indonesia.
A systemic problem
The Indonesian Palm Oil Association told Reuters news agency no company would "consciously" hire illegal underage labor. But it acknowledged that minors did work on the plantations: "If children want to help their parents, companies cannot forbid that," association official Sumarjono Saragih said.
Anticipating the release of the report, Wilmar issued a statement in which it said it "recognizes and respects the rights of all workers, including contract, temporary and migrant workers." The company said it welcomed the report, "as it helps highlight labor issues within the wider palm oil industry and in Indonesia specifically."
Wilmar said the problem was systematic and could not be addressed by a single company. Perpetua George, Wilmar's assistant general manager for sustainability, said, "Many of these highlighted issues need a bigger platform than sustainable certification to resolve; they require collaborations between governments, companies, and civil society organisations like Amnesty International."
Amnesty urged supermarket brands to reveal which of their products used palm oil from Wilmar's plantations. It also asked them to demand Wilmar improve its working practices.
sgb/hg (dpa, Reuters)