Asian plantation workers toil in horrible conditions. Many endure serious cruelty—including child labor and outright slavery. Alleged abuses flourish while the world consumes the fruit of their labor: palm oil.
African palm fruit comes from the African oil palm, a tree in the same family as the coconut palm. Palm fruit looks like a orangey-purple Roma tomato. God designed the fruit to be exceedingly useful. Oil pressed from its stringy flesh is rich in nutrients. Many governments use palm oil to fight diseases related to malnutrition.
Palm fruit is the world’s number one fruit crop. Its oil appears in roughly half the items on supermarket shelves. You can find palm oil in products from Oreos to Lysol. Candles, makeup, medicine, paint, plywood, and soap contain palm oil—as does animal feed, biofuels, hand sanitizer, and granola bars. Companies such as Unilever, L’Oreal, Nestlé, and Procter & Gamble all use the oil.
Malaysia and Indonesia produce about 85% of the world’s palm oil. Workers there tend the valuable fruit. Rumors of serious worker mistreatment have surrounded the industry for years.
During a recent investigation, reporters interviewed more than 100 current and former palm oil workers. Many worked for FGV Holdings Berhad, one of the world’s largest palm oil companies.
Almost all workers complained about their treatment, saying they were cheated, threatened, or held against their will. A worker at a Felda plantation says, “We work until we are dying.”
As global demand for palm oil surges, plantations struggle to find laborers. Workers sometimes pay up to $5,000 just to get jobs—an amount that could take years to earn in their home countries. Many say company officials seize their passports to keep them from running away.
Others remain off the books. Some migrants work without documentation and children labor in the fields, picking fruit alongside parents. Women earn as little as $2 per day, sometimes for decades.
Despite palm oil’s poor reputation, large global banks keep funding the crop’s growing demand. In some cases, they also process plantation payrolls. Those payrolls reveal random wage deductions, warning signs of forced labor.
Now the United States is taking action. U.S. officials are banning palm oil from countries with a history of forced labor and other abuses.
Palm Oil Associations in Malaysia and Indonesia call charges against the industry unfounded. But recent investigations suggest otherwise. FGV has vowed to “clear its name” after the U.S. banned imports of its palm oil.
Brenda Smith of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection encourages citizens to act, saying, “We would also encourage U.S. consumers to ask questions about where their products come from.”