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.