PENINSULAR MALAYSIA (AP) — Palm oil is almost impossible to avoid. It can be found in roughly half the products on supermarket shelves, from Dove soap and Oreo cookies to instant noodles and hand sanitizer. While most shoppers know little about the commodity or the human toll, the $65 billion industry has long been criticized for environmental destruction and labor abuses. And big companies and banks have been profiting.
Associated Press reporters spoke to more than 130 current and former workers from two dozen companies across wide swaths of Malaysia and Indonesia, the two biggest producing countries. The men, women and children interviewed came from eight different countries and included some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, including Rohingya Muslims who fled ethnic cleansing in their homeland.
Key takeaways from the AP’s Investigation:
LABOR ABUSES: As global demand for palm oil surges, plantations are struggling to find enough laborers, frequently relying on brokers who prey on the most at-risk people. The most serious abuses found by AP included child labor, outright slavery and allegations of rape. Some workers said they were cheated, threatened, held against their will or forced to work off unsurmountable debts or swept up in raids and detained in crowded government facilities.
They included Rohingya Muslims, who fled ethnic cleansing in Myanmar only to be sold into the palm oil industry. Fishermen who escaped years of slavery on boats also described coming ashore in search of help, only to be trafficked onto plantations — sometimes with police involvement. They said they worked for little or no pay and were trapped for years.
ICONIC GLOBAL BRANDS: Abuses were widespread, found on plantations big and small across Indonesia and Malaysia, which together supply more than 85 percent of the global demand. It ends up in the supply chains of some of the largest U.S. and European food and cosmetic companies, including Procter & Gamble, Nestle, L’Oreal, J.M. Smucker Co., and Unilever. Though labor abuses in the palm oil industry have been an open secret for years, most companies told the AP they do not tolerate human rights abuses and investigate allegations raised about companies that feed into their supply chains, taking appropriate action when warranted.
WESTERN FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS:
Asian banks are by far the most robust financiers of the palm oil industry, but Western lenders and investment companies have poured almost $12 billion into plantations in the last five years alone, allowing for the razing and replanting of ever-expanding tracts of land, according to Forest and Finance, a database run by six non profit organizations that track money flowing to palm oil companies. The U.S institutions BNY Mellon, Charles Schwab Corp., Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Citigroup Inc., along with Europe’s HSBC, Standard Chartered, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse and Prudential, together account for $3.5 billion of that, according to the data.
Most banks responded by noting their policies vowing to support sustainability practices in the palm oil industry. Many of the financial institutions said they also incorporated human rights into their guidelines.