Ten years ago, I had no idea what palm oil was and I did not know that it was omnipresent in my food, personal care, and cleaning products. Like many of us, I had only become aware of the palm oil industry when a stunt by Greenpeace activists landed them in the news in 2008.
They had dressed in Orangtang suits and climbed the HQ of a company that used palm oil in a chocolate snack they manufactured. Their objective was to shed light on the fact that Orangutangs, an endangered species, were killed in land clearings to make way for palm plantations so that more palm oil was produced.
Outrage ensued for the poor Orangutangs and like many of us, I had stayed away from those brands which were identified as being knowing participants in such organised slaughter. Wanting to be responsible, I started to seek products with the “sustainable palm oil” badge when browsing through my supermarket shelves.
Fast forward 8 years, Amnesty International released a damning report which investigated palm oil plantations in Indonesia. The investigation determined that palm oil workers faced systematic abuses and that forced labour and child labour were prevalent.
There are so many alarming things in that report but because it is International Children’s Day, I would like to focus on only one of the findings, child labour.
Indonesian law prohibits employment of children under the age of 18 in forms of labour that may endanger their health, safety, and morals. Many harvest workers, under pressure to meet quotas fixed by plantation owners or to avoid penalties, enrol their entire families including young children to help them.
Amnesty International have found that some children started working from the age of 8 years onward and all were below 15. Most of the children help their parents in the afternoons and on weekends and holidays. However, some children have dropped out of school and work for all or most of the day.
Children must carry sacks of loose fruits and some transport wheelbarrows full of heavy palm fruit bunches over uneven terrain and narrow bridges. They run the risk of injuries from repetitive movements, carrying heavy loads and from working in an environment where they are exposed to chemicals such as pesticides.
When confronted with evidence of child labour, the company that owns those plantations shifted the blame on the parents by stating that “ensuring there is no child labour is a non-negotiable requirement for our suppliers…” and that signs were put up around the plantations that say that child labour is prohibited.
What the company has not done is acknowledge their share of responsibility in creating child labour through their business practices. Demanding that harvest workers meet their quotas whether it is harvest season or not, regardless of the weather and the number of hours worked is exactly why parents are forced into a corner. They have no choice but to solicit their children’s help. The alternative to them not doing it is a penalty for not meeting their quotas or worse losing their job and therefore their ability to feed their family.
It is an impossible situation for those families and confronted with that scenario, I don't think I would do things differently. Until such time, palm oil becomes truly sustainable, I have decided to go palm oil free.
You, too, can do something. Whether it is signing Amnesty International’s petition to demand the end of child labour in palm oil plantations or transitioning away from palm oil products by choosing better alternatives.
Petition to end child labour in palm oil plantations
Amnesty International on abuses in palm oil plantations
Natural alternatives to palm oil heavy everyday products