Exposed: Child Labor in the US Food Supply

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klk forced labor_550pxAt the age when kids in the US are attending middle school and going to soccer practice, too many children across Indonesia and Malaysia are forced to work long days doing back-breaking labor in the harsh and sweltering conditions of industrial palm oil plantations. These children often do not receive pay or have the opportunity to ever leave the plantation, much less go to school.

Rainforest Action Network and our allies have long known that palm oil—the seemingly innocuous food additive found in roughly half of the packaged foods Americans buy every day—is grown in conditions that include widespread land conflicts and horrible human rights abuses. The hard part is, while rainforest destruction and even species extinction can be measured and documented relatively easily, irrefutable evidence of human suffering is often elusive. I traveled to the other side of the world recently to try and change that.

Despite the 24-hour flight from the U.S., my colleague and I arrived at the offices of our allies at Sawit Watch (Sawit means palm oil in Indonesian) in Bogor, Indonesia, alert and ready for the heavy conversations we knew we would have. Fatilda and Ratri greeted us with warm smiles and hugs on the back porch, and the four of us settled in for two days of intense meetings. The topic: forced and child labor in Indonesia’s palm oil sector.

Our conversation began with the stories of Peter and Brian, two child workers interviewed in one of KLK’s plantation dormitories in January 2012. Reviewing the case study, we read:

Peter is 14 years old but has an identity card that says he is 19. (Out of concern for their safety, Peter and other alleged victims asked that their names be changed.) Peter started working on the plantation when he was 12, cutting palm fruit from the trees seven days a week with no day off.

Brian is 15 years old and came to the plantation with his mother and siblings when his father died in 2011. In order to help his mother support the family, Brian left school in eighth grade and arranged for a middleman to take him and his family to a neighboring island plantation. The first four months of his pay went to the middleman.

Without much conversation, the four of us agreed: we needed to go back to the KLK plantation. We needed to know more about the lives and working conditions of Peter, Brian, and others on KLK’s plantation.

Ratri booked tickets for two flights and a boat ride for her and her colleague Yoka. In total, it would take them two days to travel to the remote plantation.

Last week, three days after I arrived back home in the U.S., I received an email from Ratri. She had just returned from the KLK plantation.

She wrote in her email that she couldn’t find Peter and Brian, but there were many child laborers on the plantation and she was able to talk to three of them. From her interviews with the children, she wrote:

The children interviewed were recruited through a middleman who came from their hometown. He offered the children work in a plantation, promising decent housing, high payment (Rp.3,000,000 or $294 USD/month), and easy work. However, the reality was not what they were promised.

Two of the children were told that they owed the recruiter for the cost of the flight and transportation to get from their hometown to the plantation, but they were never told how much they owed. Every month for the first six months, between Rp.500,000 and Rp.700,000  ($49-69 USD) was deducted from their salary, and after six months working, they received a total of Rp.1,798,000 (about $176 USD, or less than $1 a day). The cost of equipment needed for the work was then also deducted from this amount.

None of the children had contracts with the recruiter or the company but they did have fake IDs with forged ages. However, the recruiter held their fake IDs and important documents, including diplomas, to ensure they couldn’t leave the plantation. One of the children mentioned that he received physical and verbal abuse when he made mistakes.

The children live in a wooden camp with limited electricity and clean water supply. The company says it will supply clean water once every two weeks, but clean water often only comes once a month or less. When they run out of clean water, they cook, drink and bathe from a trench where the plantation’s waste also runs.

A day after I received this email from Ratri, Bloomberg Businessweek published an in-depth article based on the results of a nine-month field investigation conducted across a dozen palm oil plantations by the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. The piece documents widespread practices of forced and child labor throughout KLK’s palm oil plantations. Like those laborers Sawit Watch and RAN talked to in 2010, 2012, and now again in 2013, KLK workers in the article describe being defrauded, abused and, in some cases, held captive in harsh conditions with no pay for months or in some cases years on end.

At the 2010 Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) annual meeting, KLK promised it would improve its labor practices and recruitment standards, yet the evidence from Sawit Watch and its local partners’ field visits two weeks ago, as well as the story recently published by Bloomberg Businessweek, prove that nothing has changed on KLK plantations.

KLK and all palm oil producers who still turn a blind eye to child and slave labor, deforestation and species extinction need to understand that these practices are inexcusable and will not be tolerated on the international market. That is why RAN is launching an ambitious new campaign targeting the top 20 US snack food brands to pressure them into making commitments to only purchase conflict-free palm oil.

Please join our Palm Oil Action Team to tell KLK and all palm oil producers that basic human rights are not an externality and that they must respect their workers and stop the use of forced and child labor immediately.

3 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. jonathan bennetts says:

    To deprive young children of their youth is criminal,to exploit them and abuse them with work overloads is an obscenity.
    Whoever legislates here has to be made aware of this shocking abuse.

  2. Dee Chapell says:

    Please inform all companies about this horrific situation so that they can make changes.

  3. I adore kids. all ages and dispositions. The children in this forum should not have to work at such a young age in awful conditions. It is wrong. There are rules against this that are not being respected to protect our children.
    I pray someone soon wakes up and smells the coffee so to speak, that will bring about the changes that must be made so these kids and peoples can have a better life in their workplace. !
    Thank you for your time and God bless you,

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