Consumer goods giants including Kellogg’s, Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive, Reckitt Benckiser and Nestlé have been accused of using palm oil produced by children in dangerous conditions, a report by Amnesty International has claimed.
Workers as young as eight years old were working on Indonesian plantations run by Asian palm oil company Wilmar International and its suppliers, the report claimed.
’Workers, especially women, are employed under casual work arrangements, which make them vulnerable to abuses’
Amnesty International found “serious human rights abuses on the plantations” including forced labour and child labour, gender discrimination, as well as “exploitative and dangerous working practices that put the health of workers at risk”, as part of its investigation.
“The abuses identified were not isolated incidents but due to systemic business practices by Wilmar’s subsidiaries and suppliers, in particular the low level of wages, the use of targets and ‘piece rates’ (where workers are paid based on tasks completed rather than hours worked), and the use of a complex system of financial and other penalties,” the 148-page report claimed.
“Workers, especially women, are employed under casual work arrangements, which make them vulnerable to abuses.”
Much of the harvested palm oil found its way to a host of consumer goods sold in the UK and across the globe, Amnesty said, with major fmcg companies “sourcing palm oil from refineries where it has been directly supplied or, at the very least, been mixed with palm oil produced on plantations where there are severe labour rights abuse”, the report added.
“As buyers of Wilmar’s oil, these companies have a responsibility to ensure their supply chain is free from abuses such as child labour and forced labour,” the NGO said. “None of the companies was aware of the abuses until contacted by Amnesty International, which in itself strongly suggests that their due diligence is insufficient.”
The Amnesty investigation also took a swipe at palm oil certifier the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), claiming it had failed in its duties and was “acting as a shield which deflects greater scrutiny of Wilmar’s and other companies’ practices”.
Three of the five palm growers investigated by Amnesty were certified as producing “sustainable” palm oil under the RSPO, it claimed, “despite the severe abuses that researchers found on their plantations”.
“There is nothing sustainable about palm oil that is produced using child labour and forced labour,” said Amnesty investigator Meghna Abraham.
The RSPO said it “fully acknowledges the existence of serious problems in the protection of workers and human rights in the global intensive agriculture sector, including the oil palm sector”. It added that the employment practices highlighted in the Amnesty report were “not only non-compliant with the RSPO requirements but also illegal”.
In a statement, Singapore-based Wilmar said it “recognises and respects the rights of all workers, including contract, temporary and migrant workers”, and had started investigating the allegations in August, and had “identified the need to further improve” on the approach to monitoring and enforcing its “labour-related commitments”.
Responses to Amnesty International report
We are concerned about the specific allegations raised by Amnesty International and will hold Wilmar accountable for addressing any issues. As called for since 2012 by our Supplier Responsible Sourcing Assessment (SRSA) Program, we work with suppliers to remediate unacceptable practices and, as we have done in the past, will terminate any supplier that fails to address labour and human rights concerns. Our use of 100% certified oils represents important sustainability progress, and we support the strengthening of the RSPO program to more fully address labour and human rights concerns.
We are greatly concerned by Amnesty International’s findings on the working conditions in Wilmar’s palm oil supply chain. Since we were made aware of these issues, we have been working closely with Amnesty International, Wilmar and our NGO partner The Forest Trust, to ensure they are investigated fully and appropriately addressed. We are committed to achieving zero deforestation, zero degradation of peat and zero exploitation of workers in our palm oil supply chain. As a purchaser of palm derivatives, we have been working hard to trace our palm volumes back to mill (outside of India, we’ve achieved this for 90% of our volumes), complete mill compliance risk assessments and roll out on the ground assessments and training. We’re also supporting an independent NGO monitoring and verification project in Indonesia and have launched our first palm oil small holder engagement programme.
We share the concerns of Amnesty International on the difficulties posed by successfully integrating human rights considerations into the mill risk assessment process and look forward to working closely with Amnesty International and our other partners to address this challenge.”
“We welcome this report by Amnesty International, which has highlighted important human and labour rights issues in the palm oil industry. Although significant progress has been made to tackle the environmental issues associated with palm oil cultivation, much more needs to be done to tackle the deeply concerning social issues prevalent. We have started this journey and are committed to working with partners to accelerate positive change.”
“Practices such as those identified in Amnesty International’s report have no place in our supply chain. Nestlé engaged extensively with Amnesty during the drafting report, including supplying detailed information on our relationship with palm oil supplier Wilmar and on our actions to address human rights and labour rights issues in the sector. We will investigate allegations related to our purchasing of palm oil, along with our suppliers. Wilmar supplies around 10% of the total palm oil that we use in our products. We are working closely with the company to improve traceability. Now, 83% of the volume that we purchase is traceable back to the mill of origin and 11% is traceable to plantation. This traceability does not yet extend to the plantations at the centre of the allegations in Amnesty International’s report.
“For six years, we have worked with partners, including The Forest Trust, to improve transparency, traceability and supplier behaviour in the palm oil industry. We have processes in place to assess where the risk of labour or human rights violations exist in our supply chain and we are taking action to address these. Where our suppliers fail to meet the provisions in our Supplier Code, including on labour rights, we will suspend them. “Given the complexity of the palm oil industry and the estimated four million people that it employs in South East Asia, progress in address labour and human rights issues relies on cross-industry efforts. We will continue to play an active role, alongside others.”
“As a global business, we believe it is in our best interest to protect and advance the cause of human rights in our operations and value chain. That is why we are committed to respecting human rights in accordance with international standards like the International Labour Organization, U.N. Guiding Principles, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We believe these rights are inherent for all human beings and we acknowledge that these rights are interrelated, interdependent, and indivisible. Kellogg is committed to working with our global palm oil suppliers to source fully traceable palm oil to known and certified sources that are environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable. If we find, or are made aware of, any supply chain violations of our global palm oil principles, we work with the supplier to understand corrective actions and ensure they understand our commitments. If the concerns are not adequately addressed, we take action to remove them from our supply chain.”