Palm Oil & Human Rights Abuses

Monday, July 22, 2013

Palm oil plantation in East Malaysia (Wikimedia Commons user

A 2012 U.S. Department of Labor report on child and forced labor identified a handful of consumer products with the worst track record on labor practices. The top four included clothing, seafood, gold and palm oil. 

Palm oil is an increasingly ubiquitous, yet nearly invisible substance. Consumers can find it in Crest toothpaste, Gillette shaving cream, Oil of Olay skin products, and a number of other drug store staples. Palm oil has also become a common ingredient in food products from Nestle, General Mills, Kraft and Kellogg, among others.

Benjamin Skinner, a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek and senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, says that the economic rise of China and India have driven demand for palm oil. Chinese consumers, he explains, "care deeply about the environmental costs, they care deeply about product safety," but most are unaware of the human costs.

When it comes to the palm oil industry in Indonesia, Skinner explains,  "We're talking about slavery, those forced to work, held through fraud under threat of violence for no pay beyond subsistence."

Skinner looks at the labor practices behind this increasingly pervasive substance and the economic factors driving the global demand for palm oil.

Skinner's report notes that when Businessweek asked about the allegations of abuse, California Oils, Kellogg, General Mills, P&G and Unilever cited supplier codes of conduct that prohibit such practices. Nestle and Archer Daniel Midland pledged to investigate.

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Benjamin Skinner

Produced by:

Mythili Rao and Jillian Weinberger

Comments [3]

Leave Your Desk and Learn Something

We avoid palm oil because it is mostly "grown" on land administered by local leaders so corrupt and cynical that they are stumbling over themselves to trade away their last virgin rainforests, thrusting slavery, ugliness and pollution on their own children and grandchildren. On their deathbeds they ask for forgiveness: no.

Jul. 23 2013 10:41 AM

The statement that Palm Oil is "environmentally benign" is wholly erroneous and a sad example of uninformed commentary. The growth of palm oil plantations and the destruction of enormous amounts of rainforests in southeast Asia is laying waste to habitats of endangered species such as orangutans, Sumatran tigers and numerous other species. These animals face extinction as a result. For example, fewer that 200 Sumatran tigers remains in the wild. They will soon cease to exist thanks to palm oil production and other habitat destruction. It will take very little research to discover the details of this disaster, but you can start here:

Jul. 22 2013 04:12 PM
Maggie from Morristown nj

There is more than one serious issue around palm oil production that mak it boycott worthy.
I no longer buy products containing Palm oil.
Much of the land being cleared to meet the demand for this product is the habitat of the extremely endangered and gentle Orangutan
Not only is this primate displaced but it is then hunted and killed by the growers when it returns to the palm oil groves and attempts to feed. The effect on the species is devastating.

Jul. 22 2013 09:30 AM

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