Case studies: Palm oil and human rights abuses

Many of the world’s most popular food and household companies are selling food, cosmetics and other everyday staples containing palm oil, an ingredient that is tainted by shocking human rights abuses.

Amnesty International investigated labour exploitation on plantations in Indonesia that provide palm oil to Wilmar, the world’s largest processor and merchandiser of palm oil.

We spoke to 120 workers, including children, who work on palm plantations in Kalimantan and Sumatra in Indonesia and heard about the human rights abuses that go into making many of our favourite household brands.

Child labour

Workers employed by several companies told researchers that they see children working on the plantation, helping their parents. Because of a fear that they could lose their jobs if they spoke about this issue, parents were nervous about being interviewed about child labour.

Most of the children help their parents in the afternoons, after attending school, and on weekends and holidays. However, some children have dropped out of their schools to help their parents and work for all or most of the day.

“The hardest thing is to gather the loose fruit because they are heavy. My hands hurt and my body aches”

C, a 10 year old boy

Children described to Amnesty International researchers how they work without any safety equipment, in an environment full of hazards including falling branches, exposure to chemicals, and heavy lifting.

D, a 12-year-old boy whose father works for a Wilmar supplier as a harvester, described his working life to Amnesty International.

“I go to school, I am in sixth grade. I help [my father] every day, from Monday to Saturday, from 2 – 6pm. My father works till 6pm. I pick up the loose fruits. It is not tough to pick up the fruit but there is a small worm that bites me. I put the fruits into the sack and carry it to the collection point. I cannot carry the full sack so I carry half [full] sacks. By the end I collect 10 full sacks. The hardest thing is to gather all the loose fruit which are scattered everywhere. I don’t wear gloves and it hurts to pick them up. I don’t wear boots, I wear sandals. I work when it is raining, it is slippery. I slip while carrying the sack. I have fallen sometimes, I get bruised but there is no bleeding or cuts.

“I do my homework after going home. I do it for around half an hour. I feel very tired at the end of the day. I don’t have enough time to study. I would like to have more time. During the Eid holidays, I go to our village. I help my father all day on school holidays otherwise.”

C, a 10-year-old-boy, dropped out of school after the second grade and helps his father who works at a Wilmar supplier. He has helped his father since he was eight years old.

He said: “I help my father from 6am – 12pm every day from Monday to Saturday. I don’t go to school …I only pick up the loose fruit. I carry the sack with the loose fruit by myself but can only carry it half full. It is difficult to carry it, it is heavy. I do it in the rain as well but it is difficult. I collect two to five full sacks. The hardest thing is to gather the loose fruit because they are heavy. My hands hurt and my body aches.”

C’s father said that he would not be able to meet his targets without his children helping him.

Forced labour

Amnesty International spoke to workers who described the long hours they are forced to work in order to meet ridiculously high targets, some of which involve highly physically demanding tasks such as operating heavy manual equipment to cut fruit from trees 20 meters tall.

I have rheumatism and my knee joints hurt … The foreman yells at me if I don’t meet the target. I have to work through the pain otherwise the foreman will count me as only working for half a day if I don’t meet the target

Plant maintenance worker

Amnesty International documented cases of foremen threatening workers in plant maintenance with not being paid or having their pay deducted in order to exact work from them.

A works as a casual daily labourer in the plant maintenance unit at PT Milano.

She said: “The target is [to spread] 15 – 17 sacks …If I don’t finish my target, they ask me to keep working but I don’t get paid for the extra time or get any premi [bonus]. I have to finish all the sacks before I can leave. Around three months ago, my friend and I told the foreman that we were very tired and wanted to leave. The foreman told us if you don’t want to work, go home and don’t come again. It is difficult work because the target is horrifying. We have to finish 17 sacks. The terrain is especially hard because it is uphill and we have to go up and down. It is peatland and there are tree stumps everywhere. My feet hurt, my hands hurt and my back hurts after doing the work.”

U, who works in plant maintenance for a Wilmar supplier, described how being paid by targets forces her to work more than she can:

“I have rheumatism and my knee joints hurt … The foreman yells at me if I don’t meet the target. I have to work through the pain otherwise the foreman will count me as only working for half a day if I don’t meet the target”.

Workers can also be arbitrarily forced to do extra work without pay. One worker explained how many workers spraying chemical on palm oil plantations go home unpaid if it rains before a certain time in the morning:

“Right now even if we work 10 hours or all day, we cannot get the daily wage…if we spray until 11 [am] from the morning and then it rains – we won’t get paid for that day because what they sprayed has been diluted and has been in vain…We have to do the work again and only then we will get paid. We don’t get paid additionally for the extra work, just the daily wage.”

A casual daily labourer told Amnesty International how she is sent home without being paid if the sprayer she is using breaks down after she has already sprayed four to five tanks. She said:

“This happens one to two times a month. When it rains, the sprayer doesn’t work well and I spray six to seven tanks and then it breaks down…I feel upset and heartbroken because I have worked so hard.”

Gender Discrimination

Amnesty International found a discriminatory pattern of hiring women as casual daily labourers, denying them permanent employment and social security benefits such as health insurance and pensions. Workers in plant maintenance units, who are almost all women, continue to be casual even when they work for the company for years, and this means they are denied social security benefits such as compensation and sick pay. Their employment status is fundamentally insecure and they have no safeguards around termination of employment.

It is impossible for a woman to be a permanent worker in Wilmar


V, who works as a casual daily labourer for a Wilmar subsidiary, described how she had an accident while working and was treated by the company but did not receive any compensation and was only paid for a small portion of the days where she was unable to work.

She said: “I was riding in a jonder [small truck used to transport palm fruit and other materials], sitting on top of the fertiliser. The foreman asked me to go with the jonder because the area was far away. The jonder was trying to get over a small bridge and it capsized and I fell into a ditch and the bags of fertiliser fell on me. I drank the water in the ditch. I had pain all over my body. My legs were hurt and I couldn’t walk. I got massages and injections. The company doctor came home to give me the shots. I didn’t have to pay for it. I couldn’t work for three months but they paid me only for 15 days. I asked but didn’t get any compensation.”

One man told Amnesty International that his wife who worked as a casual daily labourer had never asked to be made permanent as: “it is impossible for a woman to be a permanent worker in Wilmar”.

The Manpower Act in Indonesia provides that female workers who feel pain during their menstruation period and notify their employer about this are not obliged to come to work on the first and second day of menstruation.

Women workers employed by SPMN, a Wilmar supplier, told researchers that in order to get menstrual leave, which they are entitled to if they feel pain during their periods, they are subjected to degrading tests.

A worker called B said: “We get our menstrual leave, two days, but have to go the clinic and the nurse gives us a cotton to show we are bleeding, otherwise the doctor won’t believe us. Of course I am upset, it is not hygienic. I have to wipe my blood and … I have to put the cotton in a bag and then go show it the doctor, who is a man. There are female midwives and they believe us but we have to show the doctor.”

Exposure to toxic chemicals

Palm oil workers are exposed to air pollution from forest fires, as well as toxic chemicals used in weed killer, pesticides and fertilizer. Workers carry a backpack with a spraying tank holding the chemicals, including Paraquat, a highly toxic chemical banned in the European Union and which Wilmar claims to have phased out in 2012. They often have inadequate safety equipment or faulty tools that cause chemicals to spill on their backs and hands.

It felt like the eye was coming out of the socket

Yohanna, who was injured by chemicals at work

Yohanna, one of the few workers with severe injuries who was willing to speak publicly about her experience, told Amnesty International how her eye was permanently damaged when the chemical Gramaxone, a weedicide containing Paraquat, splashed onto her face, leaving her unable to work. In the aftermath of the accident, her superior told her to finish transporting the chemical before seeking medical attention.

“I was trying to load the tank onto my bike but it slipped and fell. I ran to catch it but before I could the liquid came out of the can and splashed all over my face … When I went to the clinic after the incident, the midwife met me, there was no doctor or nurse there at the time … I told her that my eye had poison in it and she gave me some eye drops … They didn’t wash my eye out …In the beginning I could see through the right eye but after a month, it became blurry …The doctor in the [nearest] hospital looked at it and cleaned it and they gave me a shot through the IV and some pills to take.

“The doctor didn’t tell me what was wrong, she just spoke to the nurse and wrote a prescription. They kept me in hospital for 15 days. It [my eye] would get red every two weeks or so especially if I went out and the eye was exposed to light – sunlight or the lamp. I would feel that the eye stings and I would feel dizzy and like I am about to fall. My eye was blurry. It felt like the eye was coming out of the socket. I kept working in the same division, handling chemicals and transferring to cans. There were no checks up in between. The foremen don’t wear goggles, even when transferring the chemicals.”

“The doctor said the injury was caused by Gramoxone and that the Gramoxone had damaged the nerves of the eye … I can’t see through the eye.

Yohanna, who was injured by chemicals at work

About a year and a half after the accident, Yohanna was given a special lens to protect her eye, which sometimes became too swollen to open, from heat. She has to pay for the lens herself. She suffers from terrible headaches and dizziness due to nerve damage.

“The doctor said the injury was caused by Gramoxone and that the Gramoxone had damaged the nerves of the eye … I can’t see through the eye. I get headaches in part of my head, when I do, my eye feels really swollen. I still get a bit dizzy. I can’t read as the eye is blurry. If I use my right hand a lot, my head hurts. I would just like to walk stable like I used to.”

Amnesty International spoke to Yohanna’s doctor, who said that the delay in treatment had worsened Yohanna’s injury, leading to infection and optic nerve damage.

Another worker told Amnesty International that she had nausea, vomiting and dizziness for 10 days after accidentally spilling around two litres of Gramaxone, from a tank with a broken cap, down her back. She was unable to wash away the chemicals because there were no areas for workers to shower in and, as it was dry season, she did not have water at home.

Many workers said spraying the chemicals caused them to vomit, and one worker, F, told Amnesty International that he sometimes had such severe stomach pain that he found it hard to eat.