While Nestlé spent last week trumpeting its “groundbreaking” scientific research that will soon slash the sugar in its candy bars by 40 per cent, Amnesty International shared some damaging news about the food giant’s other ingredients being produced by child labour.
The Kit Kat maker and eight other major food and beauty companies are using palm oil produced by child and forced labour, says Amnesty.
In The Great Palm Oil Scandal: Labour Abuses Behind Big Brand Names, a report released November 30, Amnesty names Nestlé, Unilever, Kellogg, Procter & Gamble and Colgate among the manufacturers responsible for human rights abuses in Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of palm oil – despite assurances to consumers that their palm is sustainably sourced.
Palm oil and palm-based ingredients are found in roughly 50 per cent of consumer products, including cooking oil, food and household products as well as biofuels. The doubling of global production in the last decade has led to the clearing of rainforests and carbon-rich peatlands to make way for palm oil plantations, as well as the destruction of the natural habitat of endangered orangutans and the Sumatran tiger.
Amnesty researchers interviewed 120 workers, including those in supervisory positions, on plantations owned by two subsidiaries as well as three suppliers of Wilmar International, the world’s largest processor and merchandiser of palm oil and palm kernel oil. The Singapore-based company controls almost half the global trade in palm.
The report describes backbreaking work on plantations supplying the company. Harvesters use long steel poles weighing about 12 kilograms to cut palm fruit from trees that may be up to 20 metres tall.
Besides documenting forced labour, severe injuries related to exposure to pesticide use and long hours worked for as little as $2.50 a day, Amnesty also found kids as young as eight performing “hazardous” physical labour.
Most of the children involved in the work, says Amnesty, are helping their parents after school, on weekends and holidays to help them meet what one worker describes as “horrifying” quotas. Some children have dropped out of school, according to Amnesty, and work for all or most of the day carrying heavy loads of palm fruit bunches, which can weigh up to 25 kilograms each.
One of the boys interviewed, 14-year-old B, told Amnesty, “I have helped my father every day for about two years [since B was 12]. I studied till sixth grade in school. I left school to help my father because he couldn’t do the work any more. He was sick. I am concerned that I haven’t finished school. I would like to go back to school. I left because my father was sick and I had to help.”
Another boy interviewed by Amnesty, 10-year-old C, dropped out of school in the second grade to help his father, K, who told Amnesty, “I get the premi [bonus] from the loose fruit. That’s why my kids help me. I wouldn’t be able to meet the target otherwise. The foreman sees my children helping me. The foreman says it is good that my child is helping me. [A senior manager] has come when my child was helping me and not said anything. He doesn’t come out of his car. He yells out orders from his car to the foreman.”
The human rights says female workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse, tasked with spraying toxic pesticides, including paraquat (which is banned in 32 countries and was supposed to be phased out by Wilmar by 2015), often without adequate safety equipment. According to Amnesty, “Workers described experiencing negative health effects after exposure to chemicals.” Amnesty says most Wilmar subsidiaries and suppliers test the blood of employees for exposure to chemicals, but the results are not shared with workers.
And that “those showing abnormalities are often simply moved to other tasks without ever knowing what the blood test results signify.”
When presented with Amnesty’s findings, Wilmar responded by saying, “Child labour has no place in Wilmar’s operations and is a non-negotiable requirement for our suppliers.”
The company says, “A lack of access to education and childcare is one of the key reasons why this happens,” and points to its investment in providing primary education and childcare facilities. Plantation supervisors and managers, says the company, must put up signs that say child labour is prohibited and carry out regular patrols to monitor child labour.
Meghna Abraham, a senior investigator at Amnesty isn’t buying it.
“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.”
According to the human rights org, all but one of the companies named in its report are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an organization set up in 2004 “to enable the palm oil industry to operate sustainably, without environmental damage or exploitation.”
Sustainable practices were supposed to stop deforestation and institute strong environmental and labour rights safeguards. But subsequent investigations by Greenpeace and others found that the RSPO was failing to enforce deforestation standards among its members while several are leveraging the certification for good PR. Three of the five palm growers implicated in Amnesty’s report are certified as sustainable “despite the severe abuses that researchers found on their plantations,” the report notes.
“Companies have used the Roundtable as a shield to deflect greater scrutiny,” says Seema Joshi, Amnesty’s head of business and human rights. “They are showing a total lack of respect for customers who think they are making ethical choices at the checkout counter.”
Kellogg has denied using Wilmar’s Indonesian palm oil in North American products. It says Wilmar palm is only used in some Chinese Kellogg products. But Unilever confirmed that Wilmar’s Indonesian operation is one of its key suppliers. Unilever uses palm-derived ingredients in Axe products, Ben and Jerry’s, Bertolli, Cup-a-Soup, Dove, Knorr and Vaseline products among others.
The company tells NOW in an email response to questions on Amnesty's report that, “much more needs to be done to tackle the deeply concerning social issues prevalent” in palm oil production.
Nestlé, which uses palm oil in Kit Kat, Maggi cooking stock, Cheerios and countless other products, says it gets about 10 per cent of its palm oil from Wilmar.
Spokesperson Cedric Focking Schneider writes in an email to NOW that the company has a “supplier code” and “where our suppliers fail to meet the provisions... including on labour rights, we will suspend them.”
Procter & Gamble says it’s working with Wilmar to “ensure they can remedy any potential human rights infringements.”
Amnesty, meanwhile, wants the Indonesian government to investigate abuses identified in its report and a major overhaul of how the palm industry does business.
Says AI's Abraham, "There is nothing sustainable about palm oil that is produced using child labour and forced labour."