This article draws heavily from a study and report by the Associated Press, and draws from its findings and insights. For the full article on the study, please use the link presented above. This article is only a paraphrased version produced based on notes from the report and is not affiliated with Associated Press or any of its staff.
Palm oil is a fundamental ingredient in a range of products: from the food we eat to what we use on our skin. Most of these products are manufactured and sold by the world’s biggest brands. In late 2020, the Associated Press released a report after a comprehensive investigation that examined the treatment of women in the production of palm oil. The report interviewed around 40 women from 12 companies across Indonesia and Malaysia – all of whom have been identified with pseudonyms or partial names to avoid backlash from the companies they work for, and 200 other workers, activists, government officials, lawyers, and liaisons who helped some of the women and girls trapped in such situations escape. The women met with women working at Associated Press as reporters, often late at night, either in their barracks, hotels, coffee shops, or churches, and often without any men around, so that they could speak in confidence. Associated Press corroborated several of the women’s stories by both looking at police reports and legal documents, as well as reviewing complaints filed with union representatives.
The findings presented chilling narratives of how women working in various states of palm oil production face sexual violence and rape.
The unfair burden on women
The report found that women are burdened with some of the most challenging jobs in palm oil extraction. This includes spending hours in water that is filled with chemical runoff and carrying heavy loads that cause them to collapse and protrude. They work long hours with poor to no pay, especially when they lend a helping hand to their husbands so that they can finish their every day work quotas. The report also indicated that the Indonesian government acknowledged the prevalence of violence and noted that victims were often afraid to speak up and report such incidents, while the Malaysian government said that it received no reports of such violence. Indonesia happens to be the world’s largest palm oil producer. Approximately 8 million women work in the fields for palm oil production, accounting for 50% of the total workforce.
The numbers in Malaysia are not clear because of many undocumented migrant workers. In both countries, generations of women and girls from the same families have worked in palm oil production – oftentimes starting out as children and ageing alongside working in the profession without access to formal education in any sense.
Leaving is not an option for many of these women – the lack of education and skills that export to other jobs makes it difficult for them to find work outside of palm oil production. Leaving also means giving up housing, which the companies they work for offer them at a subsidized rate – even they really are shacks with no running water. For their part, the companies do little to nothing to improve the living and working conditions of the labour: they have access to generations of cheap labour that remains built in to the system. The women serve as casual labour, being hired on a day-basis with no guarantee of sustainable jobs or pay. In contrast, men hold down full-time and permanent jobs in processing mills, or out on field in charge of the harvesting stage in production. They also serve in supervisory capacities, where they oversee the work of women on field.
From the youngest to the oldest, as the Associated Press’ report shows, women working in any stage of palm oil production are not immune to sexual assault. Young women have faced sexual violence and rape at the hands of their supervisors, bosses, and foremen, oftentimes being forced into silence under the threat of death – both their own and their families’. Many of them are gang raped and trafficked as sex slaves. Those that try to speak up and report the crime to the police don’t get justice: in many instances, these cases are dropped on the ground of lack of evidence.
Business as usual, but no access to justice
Even though Indonesia formally recognizes and penalizes sexual violence and harassment against women, justice remains out of reach for the women who face sexual violence on palm oil plantations. The Associated Press report shows that the pursuit of justice remains second to the challenges of living life every day: many of these women come from families that do not earn enough money to feed themselves or meet basic costs of living. Women are forced into sex to pay back loans they’ve taken from their supervisors. Some women are given jobs in exchange for sex. Where women have stepped up to report these incidents, cases are either not recorded at all, or are recorded but dropped on the ground of “lack of evidence.” In some cases, “peace solutions” are used to settle complaints – where the family of the victim are paid and silenced. In still other cases, victims have been forcibly married to the men who raped them, especially where pregnancy occurs.
Associated Press also noted the absence of these truths in the Consumer Goods Forum’s 2018 report and in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. It also reached out to cosmetic and personal goods makers, and received either no comments or a defensive response suggesting that they used far too little palm oil when compared to the amounts produced, or in some cases, that they were engaged with local non-profits and prioritized transparency in their supply chains. However, as Associated Press found, such labour abuses continue across the industry – regardless of whether the plantations bore the green palm stamp from RSPO. Some of the women they interviewed also mentioned that they were told to hide in the forest when the sustainability auditors arrived – while some were told to smile.