Palm oil is found in 50 percent of all consumer goods, from doughnuts to deodorant to lipstick. But palm oil production is largely reliant on women and girls throughout Indonesia and Malaysia, where the industry is rife with abuses, including dangerous working conditions, sexual harassment and even rape, a new investigation from the AP says.
An estimated 7.6 million women work in the palm plantations of Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of palm oil. Some begin working as children alongside their parents, while others, like Indra, drop out of school as teenagers. Though Indra’s boss harassed her, she tells the AP that, like many women, her options are limited:
Now 27, Indra dreams of leaving, but it’s hard to build another life with no education and no other skills. Women in her family have worked on the same Malaysian plantation since her great-grandmother left India as a baby in the early 1900s. Like many laborers in both countries, they can’t afford to give up the company’s basic subsidized housing, which often consists of rows of dilapidated shacks without running water.
That ensures the generational cycle endures, maintaining a cheap, built-in workforce.
“I feel it’s already normal,” Indra said. “From birth until now, I am still on a plantation.”
While women form the backbone of the industry, they’re most often relegated to roles as “casual” laborers, with pay and jobs issued on a day-to-day basis. Men are supervisors in nearly every instance, opening the door to abuse. One 16-year-old girl, who had been working on a plantation since she was six, was raped by a supervisor old enough to be her grandfather:
The day she was attacked in 2017, she said the boss took her to a remote part of the estate, where her job was to ferry wheelbarrows laden with the bright orange palm oil fruits he hacked from the trees. Suddenly, she said, he grabbed her arm and started pawing her breasts, throwing her to the jungle floor. Afterward, she said, he held the ax to her throat.
“He threatened to kill me,” she said softly. “He threatened to kill my whole family.”
Then, she said, he stood up and spit on her.
Despite the prevalence of abuse, little action is taken by either the government or oil companies themselves, and women often feel as though they have no recourse:
In the few cases where victims do speak out, companies often don’t take action or police charges are either dropped or not filed because it usually comes down to the accuser’s word against the man’s.
“The location of palm oil plantations makes them an ideal crime scene for rape,” said Aini Fitri, an Indonesian official from the government’s women and children’s office in West Kalimantan province. “It could be dangerous in the darkness for people, especially for women, but also because it is so quiet and remote. So even in the middle of the day, the crime can happen.”
Many major brands contacted by the AP either didn’t comment, or defended their use of palm oil. While plenty of scrutiny has been aimed at the palm oil industry, much of it focuses on land grabs, rainforest destruction and the killing of endangered species, like orangutans. The treatment of women is almost never mentioned.
Read the full report here.