EKANBARU, Indonesia — Much of the palm oil used to keep our ice cream smooth, our chocolate shiny, and our margarine free of trans fats comes from the lush plantations of Indonesia and Malaysia. The big companies that produce the oil for food giants like Kellogg and Nestlé typically promise that it’s harvested in a way that protects both the environment and the workers.
Yet the women who work on the plantations here are suffering.
Their complaints about health risks have gained such momentum that the palm oil industry group just created a task force to address concerns of female workers.
While men are often assigned the heavy jobs of harvesting the spiky bunches of oil palm fruits, women typically take charge of spraying young trees with a potent cocktail of pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides.
In the tropical heat, they trudge through the rows of palms carrying plastic tanks loaded with chemicals, including paraquat, an herbicide banned in much of Europe. Hour after hour, they spray the tree trunks, often with no protection beyond a piece of cloth tied over their nose and mouth. They’re typically expected to work through a quota of chemical tanks in order to earn their daily wage.
Veteran plantation workers — and the human rights organizations fighting on their behalf — say the women are exposed to severe health hazards from handling the chemicals. Work accidents can cause infections or blindness or blistering of the skin. Documented health effects of long-term exposure to paraquat also include Parkinson’s disease, lung damage, and kidney and heart failure.
“Sometimes if we give the grass pesticide, it goes right back to our face,” said Minah, a 40-year old worker at a palm oil plantation in Riau. She and other workers interviewed asked to be identified by pseudonyms because they fear retaliation.
A winding trip from plantation to grocery shelves
Palm oil makes its way into many processed foods, from instant noodles to cookies, as well as toiletries, such as shampoo, toothpaste, and soap. It’s also a component of lipstick and biodiesel.
Many food companies that use palm oil — along with major Asian producers and distributors — are members of the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO, an industry organization that strives to ensure the plantations don’t exploit workers or ravage the forests, in part by certifying that plantations comply with a set of standards. But the organization has a backlog of complaints, and activists say violations persist.
And while Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, Proctor & Gamble, General Mills, PepsiCo, Kraft Heinz, Nestlé, Con Agra, and Kellogg have all issued statements committing to buy palm oil from sources that adhere to environmental standards and international human rights laws, many of them work through complex chains of traders and suppliers, making it tough to fully verify conditions on the ground in Asia.
“We recognize more can be done within our own supply chain to independently verify that the palm oil we use is both environmentally and socially sustainable,” Unilever said in a statement.
“We recognize more can be done … to independently verify that the palm oil we use is both environmentally and socially sustainable.”
A spokesperson at Nestlé said that the company has been talking about labor concerns with Amnesty International and is “now developing a road map on labor rights in agricultural supply chains” that will include specific steps to ensure the company’s palm oil is harvested without exploitation.
Other companies that use Indonesian palm oil said they investigate any health or labor violations that come to light and demand corrective action.
But labor activists say too many companies blindly trust RSPO certification as a seal of approval, without doing their own research.
“Relying on RSPO alone is insufficient when it comes to labor issues,” said Seema Joshi, head of Amnesty International’s business and human rights team.
Even RSPO acknowledges that it has not solved the issues: “Our current guidelines are meant to provide adequate protection to workers,” said Stefano Savi, the group’s global outreach director. “This said, agriculture — including oil palm cultivation — and the regions where it is grown are challenging environments to secure the protection of human and labor rights.”
Amnesty International last year published a report documenting labor abuses on palm oil plantations owned by Asian agricultural giant Wilmar, headquartered in Singapore. The team also found strong evidence that women working in Indonesia’s palm oil plantations faced significant health risks.
“These issues that women are facing are systemic,” Joshi said. “It was shocking to me to see that the women who have the least secure work contracts are facing some of the most serious health risks because of the nature of work they’re doing on the plantations.”
The Indonesian nongovernmental organization Sawit Watch has uncovered similar stories.
In 2015, Sawit Watch interviewed 22 female workers across three plantations. It found that workers who spent hours each day spraying fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides suffered from respiratory and vision problems. Some said they did receive protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, but still came into direct contact with the chemicals and rarely, if ever, got checkups.
Yet such women often have few other options.
Milk and pudding as ‘detox’ treatment
Growing palm oil in Indonesia is a family affair. During the 1970s and ’80s, the government gave families from the populated Indonesian island of Java incentives to move to the more remote islands that are now centers of the country’s palm oil industry — namely, Sumatra, Kalimantan, and Sulawesi.
On the sprawling plantations, the canopies of the evenly spaced trees are green and lush; it almost looks like a forest. But the land can be hilly and muddy, with weeds choking some patches of trees.
Men toil among the rows of trees carrying a long sickle, their eyes peeled for loose fruits on the ground — a sign that the fruit bunches above them are ready to be harvested. These men often bring their wives, who do not get paid, to help them collect fruits that might fall during the harvesting process. On some Indonesian plantations, children help their father ferry the heavy bunches to the side of the road with wheelbarrows.
Those women who have paid jobs typically work as pesticide sprayers.
Among them is Sari — now 40, married, and the mother of two sons, with waist-long hair wound tightly in a bun. She has a strong, determined face. But after several years of working as a pesticide sprayer, she said, her health began to deteriorate. Sari found it increasingly difficult to breathe during and after work. Headaches were accompanied by bouts of vomiting. Every two or three months, she would faint for no particular reason.
To offset the toxic effects of pesticide exposure, Musim Mas, the company that owned the plantation where Sari worked, gave employees who handled chemicals milk or pudding. “They told us that it was to help us detoxify,” Sari said.
There’s no evidence that milk could mitigate the effects of exposure to toxic pesticides.
And in an email to STAT, Musim Mas said the milk was mostly “provided as a benefit and nutrition and not from any other perspective.” But the company added that the milk “functions as a dilution or delays the digestion” of chemicals that a worker may have inadvertently inhaled.
Musim Mas said it provides maintenance workers with protective gear and monthly checkups, but Sari recalls visiting a doctor just once every year or two.
“Things have gotten better, although I’ve never been normal again.”
Sari, Indonesian palm oil worker
Then one day in 2010, she woke up, disoriented on a hospital bed. The last thing she remembered was taking a brief break during work.
An X-ray revealed that she had a lung condition, likely caused by persistent exposure to the chemicals she sprayed on palm oil trees. “I never used to have respiratory problems until I started working with them,” Sari said.
In addition to the health issues, some women on palm oil plantations complain that they are rarely allowed to take the two days of menstrual leave they’re supposed to be granted each month under Indonesian law. The law is intended to give them a reprieve from work on days when they experience pain, but human rights groups have found that the palm oil plantations routinely decline such requests or subject women to degrading tests to prove they are menstruating.
For Sari, conditions have slowly started to improve.
When she started on the plantation in the ’90s, she did not get masks or gloves to protect her as she handled the chemicals. Now, however, her employer is a RSPO member and has started providing workers with protective equipment.
Four years ago, a doctor recommended that Sari be relocated from working with pesticides because of the damage to her lungs. The plantation found a job for her to plant flowers alongside the roads. She no longer handles chemicals daily.
“Things have gotten better,” she said, “although I’ve never been normal again.”
Reporting in Indonesia was facilitated by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.