Rape, abuses in palm oil fields linked to top beauty brands

The hands of five generations of women from a family that has worked on the same palm oil plantation since the early 1900s hold products made by iconic Western companies that source palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia.

This combination of November 2020 photos shows the hands of five generations of women from a family that has worked on the same palm oil plantation since the early 1900s, ranging in age from 6 to 102. They each hold products made by iconic Western companies that source palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia. (AP Photo)

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 nose bleeds 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 percent of the world’s most versatile vegetable oil.

Palm oil is found in everything from potato chips and pills to pet food, and 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 – everything 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. They met with female AP reporters secretly within their barracks or at hotels, coffee shops or churches, sometimes late at night, usually with no men present so they could speak openly.

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.

Reporters also interviewed nearly 200 other workers, activists, government officials and lawyers, including some who helped trapped girls and women escape, who confirmed that abuses regularly occur.

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This story was funded in part by the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at CUNY’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism

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Indonesia is the world’s biggest palm oil producer, with an estimated 7.6 million women working in its fields, about half the total workforce, according to the female empowerment ministry. In much-smaller Malaysia, the figures are harder to nail down due to the large number of foreign migrants working off the books.

In both countries, the AP found generations of women from the same families who have served as part of the industry’s backbone. Some started working as children alongside their parents, gathering loose kernels and clearing brush from the trees with machetes, never learning to read or write.

And others, like a woman who gave the name Indra, dropped out of school as teenagers. She took a job at Malaysia’s Sime Darby Plantations, one of the world’s biggest palm oil companies. Years later, she says her boss started harassing her, saying things like “Come sleep with me. I will give you a baby.” He would lurk behind her in the fields, even when she went to the bathroom.

Now 27, Indra dreams of leaving, but it’s hard to build another life with no education and no other skills. Women in her family have worked on the same Malaysian plantation since her great-grandmother left India as a baby in the early 1900s. Like many laborers in both countries, they can’t afford to give up the company’s basic subsidized housing, which often consists of rows of dilapidated shacks without running water.

That ensures the generational cycle endures, maintaining a cheap, built-in workforce.

“I feel it’s already normal,” Indra said. “From birth until now, I am still on a plantation.”

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 punishment in Indonesia back then, some so-called female “coolies” were bound to posts outside the boss’ house with finely ground chili pepper rubbed into their vaginas.

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 last 20 years alone. 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.

The 16-year-old girl who described being raped by her boss – a man old enough to be her grandfather – started working on the plantation at age 6 to help her family make ends meet.

The day she was attacked in 2017, she said the boss took her to a remote part of the estate, where her job was to ferry wheelbarrows laden with the bright orange palm oil fruits he hacked from the trees. Suddenly, she said, he grabbed her arm and started pawing her breasts, throwing her to the jungle floor. Afterward, she said, he held the ax to her throat.

“He threatened to kill me,” she said softly. “He threatened to kill my whole family.”

Then, she said, he stood up and spit on her.

Nine months later, after she says he raped her four more times, she sat by a wrinkled 2-week-old boy. She made no effort to comfort him when he cried, struggling to even look at his face.

The family filed a report with police, but the complaint was dropped, citing lack of evidence.

“I want him to be punished,” the girl said after a long silence. “I want him to be arrested and punished because he didn’t care about the baby … he didn’t take any responsibility.”

The AP heard about similar incidents on plantations big and small in both countries. Union representatives, health workers, government officials and lawyers said some of the worst examples they encountered involved gang rapes and children as young as 12 being taken into the fields and sexually assaulted by plantation foremen.

One example involved an Indonesian teen who was trafficked to Malaysia as a sex slave, where she was passed between drunk palm oil workers living under plastic tarps in the jungle, eventually escaping ravaged by chlamydia. And in a rare high-profile case that sparked outrage last year, a female preacher working at a Christian church inside an Indonesian estate was tied up among the trees, sexually assaulted by two workers and then strangled. The men were sentenced to life in prison.

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.

Malaysia’s Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development said it hadn’t received complaints about the treatment of women laborers so had no comment. And Nageeb Wahab, head of the Malaysian Palm Oil Association, said workers are covered by the country’s labor laws, with the ability to file grievances.

Those familiar with the complexities of plantation life say the subject of sexual abuse has never drawn much attention and that female workers often believe little can be done about it.

“They are thinking it happens everywhere, so there’s nothing to complain about,” said Saurlin Siagan, an Indonesian activist and researcher.

Many families living on plantations struggle to earn enough to cover basic costs, like electricity and rice. Desperate women are sometimes coerced into using their bodies to pay back loans from supervisors or other workers. And younger females, especially those considered attractive, occasionally are given less demanding jobs like cleaning the boss’ house, with sex expected in exchange.

In the few cases where victims do speak out, companies often don’t take action or police charges are either dropped or not filed because it usually comes down to the accuser’s word against the man’s.

“The location of palm oil plantations makes them an ideal crime scene for rape,” said Aini Fitri, an Indonesian official from the government’s women and children’s office in West Kalimantan province. “It could be dangerous in the darkness for people, especially for women, but also because it is so quiet and remote. So even in the middle of the day, the crime can happen.”

Many beauty and personal goods companies have largely remained silent when it comes to the plight of female workers, but it’s not due to 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. Its members include growers, buyers, traders and environmental watchdogs. But of the nearly 100 grievances lodged in Indonesia and Malaysia in the last decade, most have not focused on labor until recently. And women are almost never mentioned.

A female worker sprays herbicide in a palm oil plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia
A female worker sprays herbicide in a palm oil plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia, on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)

The AP reached out to representatives affiliated with every cosmetic and personal goods maker mentioned in this story. Some didn’t comment, but most defended their use of palm oil and its derivatives, with many attempting to show how little they use compared to the roughly 80 million tons produced annually worldwide. Others said they were working with local nonprofits, pointed to pledges on their websites about commitments to sustainability and human rights, or noted efforts to be transparent about the processing mills in their supply chains.

But the AP found that labor abuses regularly occur industrywide, even from mills that source from plantations bearing the RSPO’s green palm stamp.

That includes Indonesian companies like London Sumatra, which withdrew from the RSPO last year after the association cited it for a series of labor abuses. London Sumatra told the AP that it adheres to labor laws and takes “the health of our workers very seriously.”

In some cases, women working at various palm oil companies illegally said they were ordered to hide in the jungle when sustainability auditors arrived, while others were told to smile if they encountered any visitors.

The AP used U.S. Customs records, product ingredient lists and the most recently published data from producers, traders and buyers to link the laborers’ palm oil and its derivatives from the mills that process it to the Western brands’ supply chains – including some that source from mills fed by plantations where women said they were raped and young girls toiled in the fields.

Abuses also were linked to product lines sought out by conscientious consumers like Tom’s of Maine and Kiehl’s, through the supply chains of their giant parent companies Colgate-Palmolive and L’Oréal. And Bath & Body Works was connected through its main supplier, Cargill, one of the world’s biggest palm oil traders.

Coty Inc., which owns global staples like CoverGirl and is tapping into partnerships with Gen Z newcomers like Kylie Cosmetics, did not respond to multiple AP calls and emails. And Estee Lauder Companies Inc., owner of Clinique and Aveda, acknowledged struggling with traceability issues in its RSPO filing. When asked by AP whether specific products used palm oil or its derivatives, there was no response.

Both companies, along with Shiseido and Clorox, which owns Burt’s Bees Inc., keep the names of their mills and suppliers secret. Clorox said it would raise the allegations of abuses with its suppliers, calling AP’s findings “incredibly disturbing.”

Johnson & Johnson makes its mill list public, but refused to say whether its iconic baby lotion contains palm oil derivatives.

One case uncovered by the AP involved a widow named Maria who said her supervisor began sexually harassing her when she first started working at a Malaysian-owned company in Indonesia. She said she successfully fought off his advances until she returned home one night to find him inside, waiting for her.

“I tried to remind him about his wife and his children in the village, but he hugged me tighter while pulling my pants down. Then he raped me,” she said. “After that, he left me. But almost two hours later, he came back and raped me a second time.”

She said she stayed quiet at first because he threatened her life and her job. But the attacks continued, she said, including once when he jumped her while she was working in the field “crushing me so that I couldn’t move.”

That time, she said, she kept a semen-filled tissue as evidence. She later confronted the man and his wife and also complained to company and union officials. She attempted to file a police report, but instead was directed to seek compensation directly from the man, a union representative said. She was never paid and ended up moving to another plantation to get away from the boss, who has since quit.

Rosita Nengsih, the director of the Women, Children and Family Legal Aid Institution in the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan, said most victims are reluctant to report rapes to authorities, adding it’s typical to settle complaints through so-called “peace solutions” in which the victim’s family may be paid off. Sometimes parents force their daughter to marry her rapist to lessen the shame, often after pregnancy occurs.

The province where Nengsih works borders Malaysia on the island of Borneo, which is shared by the two countries. It is a porous corridor for Indonesian workers, including women and young girls hoping to earn enough in the wealthier neighboring country to pull themselves out of poverty. Many travel there illegally, sometimes falsifying documents or lying about their ages, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.

Nengsih recalled a case involving two Indonesian girls as young as 13 who were working on a Malaysian plantation with their parents and said they were repeatedly raped by the same supervisor until both became pregnant four months apart.

“Nothing happened to the foreman,” she said. “He’s still free.”

The conditions these workers endure stand in stark contrast to female empowerment messages promoted by industry leaders such as L’Oréal, one of the world’s top cosmetic companies, and Unilever, one of the biggest palm oil buyers for consumer goods, which sources from more than 1,500 mills.

As Unilever’s popular soap brand proclaims: “Dove believes that beauty is for everyone.” And L’Oréal says it is working to stamp out sexual harassment “because we are all worth it.”

In a global industry expected to reach $800 billion within the next five years, cosmetic legacy brands – together with fast-growing celebrity and niche startups – proudly tout $300 anti-wrinkle creams or glittery eyeshadows as sustainable and free of labor abuses, with little or no evidence.

In response, L’Oréal said it “has put particular emphasis on supporting and empowering women, who are the first victims of many of the social and environmental challenges our world faces.” Unilever said progress needs to be made more quickly, but that “the safety of women in global agricultural supply chains … including in the palm oil industry, remains a key concern.”

The women in Southeast Asia’s rugged, steamy plantations are a world away. Some haul tanks of toxic chemicals on their backs weighing more than 13 kilograms (30 pounds), dispensing 80 gallons each day – enough to fill a bathtub.

“Our lives are so hard,” said Ola, who has been employed as a day worker in Indonesia for 10 years and wakes each day aching from repeatedly lifting heavy loads. “After spraying, my nose bleeds occasionally. I think it’s connected to the pesticide.”

She doesn’t wear a mask because it’s too hot to breathe. She said the company doesn’t provide medical care to casual workers, and she has no money for a doctor.

Paraquat, one of the chemicals Ola and others spray, has been banned by the European Union and many other countries over possible links to a wide range of health issues, including an increased chance of developing Parkinson’s disease.

Glyphosate, the active ingredient in popular weedkiller Roundup, also is commonly used. Roundup’s parent company, Bayer, agreed earlier this year to pay more than $10 billion to end tens of thousands of lawsuits filed in the U.S. alleging the chemical caused serious illnesses, including cancer.

Some palm oil workers who use agrochemicals daily showed the AP raw webbing between their fingers and toes, along with destroyed nails. Others had milky or red eyes and complained of dizzy spells, trouble breathing and blurry vision. Activists reported that some totally lost their sight.

The workers said pesticides routinely blow back into their faces, splash onto their backs and seep into the sweaty skin on their stomachs.

“If the liquid shakes and spills out, it’s also running into my private area. Almost all women are suffering the same itching and burning,” said Marodot, whose five children also work to help their father meet his daily target. “I have to keep going until I finish working, and then clean it up with water. There’s too many men around.”

She said she has trouble seeing, and her face is dark and cracked from years in the sun.

When handed a $20 lipstick by a journalist, a worker named Defrida was told it contained palm oil. She twisted the silver case and stared at the glistening pink stick – first with intrigue, then with disgust.

Noting she would have to spray pesticide on 30 acres of rough jungle terrain just to afford a single tube, she pleaded with women who buy products containing palm oil: “Oh, my God!” she said. “Please pay attention to our lives.”

She, along with nearly all the women interviewed, complained of pelvic pain and explained how almost every phase of their reproductive health is affected.

Some women are forced to undergo humiliating checks to prove they are bleeding in order to take leave during their periods.

Others suffering from collapsed uteruses – caused by the weakening of the pelvic floor from repeatedly squatting and carrying overweight loads – create makeshift braces by tightly wrapping scarves or old motorbike tire tubes around their mid-sections. Some workers described the pain as so agonizing that they could find relief only by lying on their backs with their legs in the air.

Despite a national health care program launched by the Indonesian government, many palm oil workers still don’t have access to medical services and, even when basic care is available, it typically is not extended to female day workers. The nearest clinics can be more than a day’s drive by motorbike, so most workers just use aspirin, balms or home remedies when they’re sick.

Still, they are better off in many ways than migrant women working without papers in Malaysia, mostly in the bordering states of Sarawak and Sabah on the island of Borneo.

The AP confirmed a horrific story involving a pregnant Indonesian woman who escaped captivity on a Malaysian estate owned by state-run Felda, one of the world’s biggest palm oil companies. She gave birth in the jungle and foraged for food before finally being rescued. In September, U.S. Customs and Border Protection banned all palm oil imports from FGV Holdings Berhad, which is closely affiliated with Felda, after finding indications of child and forced labor and other abuses on its plantations.

Even on a day-to-day basis in Malaysia, migrant women fear arrest and deportation. Many rarely leave their plantations, even to give birth, at times risking their own lives and their babies’. And those who do venture out during emergencies can be held for weeks at the hospital until family members can collect enough money to pay exorbitant rates.

At one government facility in a border town, a menu of maternity ward prices was posted on a blue bulletin board. A natural birth costs foreign migrants about $630 – several times more than it would cost a Malaysian citizen, an amount that could take some women at least a year to pay back.

And that’s if they’re able to conceive and carry their babies to full term.

Groups of women interviewed by the AP in Indonesia wondered whether their arduous jobs, combined with the chemicals they handle and breathe, caused their infertility, miscarriages and stillbirths.

Ita was among those who said her work affected her ability to deliver healthy babies. She said she hid two pregnancies from her boss, knowing she likely wouldn’t be called for daily work otherwise. With two children already at home to feed, she had no choice but to keep working for $5 a day. In contrast, a permanent full-time female worker is entitled to three months of paid maternity leave.

Every day, as her belly grew, Ita said she continued to carry back-breaking loads over acres of fields, spreading 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of fertilizer – nearly a half-ton – over the course of a day. She lost both babies in her third trimester and, with no health insurance, was left with medical bills she couldn’t pay.

“The first time I miscarried, and the doctor had to pull the baby out,” said Ita, who has worked on the plantation alongside her mother since the age of 15. “The second time, I gave birth at seven months and it was in critical condition, and they put it in an incubator. It died after 30 hours.

“I kept working,” she said. “I never stopped after the baby died.”

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