By Margie Mason and Robin Mcdowell The Associated Press
SUMATRA, INDONESIA » With his hand clamped tightly over her mouth, she could not scream, the 16-year-old girl recalls — and no one was around to hear her anyway. She describes how her boss raped her amid the tall trees on an Indonesian palm oil plantation that feeds into some of the world’s best-known cosmetic brands. He then put an ax to her throat and warned her: Do not tell.
At another plantation, a woman named Ola complains of fevers, coughing and nosebleeds after years of spraying dangerous pesticides with no protective gear. Making just $2 a day, with no health benefits, she can’t afford to see a doctor.
Hundreds of miles away, Ita, a young wife, mourns the two babies she lost in the third trimester. She regularly lugged loads several times her weight throughout both pregnancies, fearing she would be fired if she did not.
These are the invisible women of the palm oil industry, among the millions of daughters, mothers and grandmothers who toil on vast plantations across Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia, which together produce 85% of the world’s most versatile vegetable oil.
Palm oil is found in products from potato chips to pet food, and it also ends up in the supply chains of some of the biggest names in the $530 billion beauty business, including L’Oréal, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Avon and Johnson & Johnson, helping women around the world feel pampered and beautiful.
The Associated Press conducted the first comprehensive investigation focusing on the brutal treatment of women in the production of palm oil, including the hidden scourge of sexual abuse, ranging from verbal harassment and threats to rape. It’s part of a larger in-depth look at the industry that exposed widespread abuses in the two countries, including human trafficking, child labor and outright slavery.
Women are burdened with some of the industry’s most difficult and dangerous jobs, spending hours waist-deep in water tainted by chemical runoff and carrying loads so heavy that, over time, their wombs can collapse and protrude. Many are hired by subcontractors on a day-to-day basis without benefits, performing the same jobs for the same companies for years — even decades. They often work without pay to help their husbands meet otherwise impossible daily quotas.
“Almost every plantation has problems related to labor,” said Hotler Parsaoran of the Indonesian nonprofit group Sawit Watch, which has conducted extensive investigations into abuses in the palm oil sector. “But the conditions of female workers are far worse than men.”
Parsaoran said it’s the responsibility of governments, growers, big multinational buyers and banks that help finance plantation expansion to tackle issues related to palm oil, which is listed under more than 200 ingredient names and contained in nearly three out of four personal-care products — from mascara and bubble bath to anti-wrinkle creams.
The AP interviewed more than three dozen women and girls from at least 12 companies across Indonesia and Malaysia. Because previous reports have resulted in retaliation against workers, they are being identified only by partial names or nicknames.
The Malaysian government said it had received no reports about rapes on plantations, but Indonesia acknowledged physical and sexual abuse appears to be a growing problem, with most victims afraid to speak out. Still, the AP was able to corroborate a number of the women’s stories by reviewing police reports, legal documents, complaints filed with union representatives and local media accounts.
Indonesia is the world’s biggest palm oil producer, with an estimated 7.6 million women working in its fields, about half the workforce, according to the female empowerment ministry. In muchsmaller Malaysia, the figures are harder to nail down because of the large number of foreign migrants working off the books.
In both countries, generations of women from the same families have served as part of the industry’s backbone. Some started working as children alongside their parents, gathering loose ker- nels and clearing brush from the trees with machetes, never learning to read or write.
Out of sight, hidden by a sea of palms, women have worked on plantations since European colonizers brought the first trees from West Africa more than a century ago.
As the decades passed, palm oil became an essential ingredient for the food industry, which saw it as a substitute for unhealthy trans fats. And cosmetic companies, which were shifting away from animal- or petroleum-based ingredients, were captivated by its miracle properties: It foams in toothpaste and shaving gel, moisturizes soaps and lathers in shampoo.
New workers are constantly needed to meet the relentless demand, which has quadrupled in the past 20 years.
Women in Indonesia are often “casual” workers — hired day to day, with their jobs and pay never guaranteed. Men receive nearly all the full-time permanent positions, harvesting the heavy, spiky fruit bunches and working in processing mills.
On almost every plantation, men also are the supervisors, opening the door for sexual harassment and abuse.
While Indonesia has laws in place to protect women from abuse and discrimination, Rafail Walangitan of the Ministry of Women Empowerment and Child Protection said he was aware of many problems identified by the AP on palm oil plantations, including child labor and sexual harassment.
“We have to work hard on this,” he said, noting the government still has a long way to go. Many beauty and personal goods companies largely have remained silent when it comes to the plight of female workers, but it’s not because of a lack of knowledge.
A powerful global industry group, the Consumer Goods Forum, published a 2018 report alerting the network’s 400 CEOs that women on plantations were exposed to dangerous chemicals and “subject to the worst conditions among all palm oil workers.” It also noted that a few local groups had cited examples of women being forced to provide sex to secure or keep jobs, but said few workers were willing to discuss the sensitive issue.
Even so, almost all of the pressure aimed at palm oil companies has focused on land grabs, the destruction of rainforests and the killing of endangered species such as orangutans.
Those concerns led to the 2004 formation of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an association that promotes and certifies ethical production, including provisions to safeguard laborers. But of the nearly 100 grievances lodged in Indonesia and Malaysia in the past decade, most have not focused on labor until recently. And women are almost never mentioned.