Empty Assurances: The human cost of palm oil

Publication Date: 

November 14, 2013


International Labor Rights Forum and Sawit Watch

Palm oil is a commodity most of us know little about, yet is virtually ubiquitous in our daily consumption.  It is a key ingredient of a host of store staples like cosmetics, soaps and snack foods.

This omnipresent vegetable oil is harvested on plantations mostly in Indonesia and Malaysia by workers who remain hidden from the public eye. Many of them are children who work in unsafe conditions for far below the minimum wage. Others have been deceived by labor brokers into being caught in debt-bondage like situations, and are trapped in remote areas with no ability to pay for a passage home.

The palm oil industry-- led by household brand names such as Unilever, Kraft, IKEA and McDonalds-- has known that these human rights violations have “tainted” its products for years.  Rather than taking a human rights approach and shedding light on the abuses, however, the industry has sought to address these problems through a confidential, 75% industry-governed voluntary certification system: The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).  The RSPO stamp of approval is meant to assure consumers that plantations are free of conflict palm oil.

Unfortunately, we found flagrant disregard for human rights at some of the very plantations the RSPO certifies as “sustainable.”  In July 2013, Bloomberg released an investigative report exposing the existence of child and forced labor in the supply chains of major international brands such as Pepsi and Kraft.  Our 2013 report Empty Assurances details how abuses extend far beyond that which Bloomberg journalists uncovered.  Not only does serious exploitation exist in palm oil supply chains: the industry’s ethical certification has proven to be no guarantee against abuse. 

Together with our partner Sawit Watch, we analyzed on-the-ground realities at three RSPO certified palm oil plantations in Indonesia.  Our investigations included site visits and worker interviews.  We found serious human rights abuses at each of the three plantations.  They include labor trafficking, child labor, unprotected work with hazardous chemicals, and long-term abuse of temporary contracts.

All of these violations are breaches not only of basic international labor norms, but also of the RSPO standard itself.  Regardless of the industry’s intentions—whether well-meaning or deceptive-- it is clear that the existing system is failing to protect workers.

Publication Type: 

  • Report