For almost a decade, Bambang has labored on an oil palm estate owned by the Salim Group conglomerate in North Sumatra.
Every day, he and his wife rise before 6 a.m. to prepare for work. Bambang cuts the palm fruit bunches from high in the treetops, while his wife gathers what falls to the ground. They usually do this until 4 p.m.
But while they both work full time, only Bambang is paid by the company. His wife is a kernet — an unofficial laborer who helps harvesters meet unrealistic quotas, but who have no direct relationship with the company.
Bambang says he gets penalized if he fails to collect 90 fruit bunches a day, each of which weighs up to 30 kilograms (66 pounds). He says he can never gather more than 70 bunches on his own.
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Even Bambang’s salary of 2.4 million rupiah ($175) per month is less than the local minimum wage, forcing the couple to supplement their income with side jobs.
“If I got to choose, I’d choose for both me and my wife to get paid, but that never happens,” Bambang, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, said in an interview. “Sometimes I want to scream because I’m so angry.”
Bambang is one of 8.4 million workers in the Indonesian palm oil industry. The Southeast Asian country is the world’s biggest producer of the commodity, which is found in products ranging from chocolate to laundry detergent to biodiesel.
In the past two decades, oil palm plantations have proliferated in Indonesia, fueling deforestation and land grabbing as politically connected companies operate with impunity.
Bambang’s story highlights a different issue: the miserable working conditions at many of Indonesia’s palm plantations. These include excessive working hours, occupational health and safety hazards, and, more seriously, child labor, forced labor and the trafficking of migrant workers.
Bambang was one of dozens of workers interviewed for a report by the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), an international NGO; OPPUK, an Indonesian labor rights advocacy organization; and the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF). (RAN set up Mongabay’s interview with Bambang.)
“We see that the issues raised in the palm oil industry are mostly environmental issues. Labor issues are rarely analyzed.”
Fitri Arianti, RAN’s coordinator for Indonesia Relations
The report exposes labor abuses on three plantations owned by Indofood, a subsidiary of the Salim Group, whose owner, Anthony Salim, is one of Indonesia’s richest men. Anthony’s father, Liem Sioe Liong, grew wealthy as one of the late dictator Suharto’s most notorious cronies.
The report reveals how workers are routinely exposed to hazardous pesticides, paid less than the minimum wage, illegally kept in a temporary work status to fill core jobs, and deterred from forming independent labor unions, among other findings.
It follows from a 2016 exposé of labor abuses on Indofood plantations, finding that working conditions remain largely the same, with Indofood only adopting cosmetic fixes that fail to address the root causes of the abuse.
For example, to address the issue of undocumented workers — often the wives and children of permanent workers — working on the plantation, the company has put up signs saying kernet are banned, rather than formalizing these workers as employees or lowering harvest quotas.
Each of the three plantations scrutinized in the report has been certified as “sustainable” by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the world’s largest association for ethical production of the commodity. The RSPO bans labor abuses by its members, but is often criticized for failing to enforce its own standards.
“There are many companies that claim that once they have RSPO certificates, it means they’re sustainable,” Fitri said. “But we see that these are plantations that have been certified by RSPO. Yet there are still many labor violations.”
Advocates have been pushing for the RSPO to improve its handling of labor issues. Earlier this year, the roundtable established a task force on labor rights to strengthen its standards and processes.
Critics say the measure is not enough
“In the RSPO’s complaint mechanism, there’s no witness protection,” OPPUK director Herwin Nasution said in an interview. “For example, if a worker reports an abuse, there’s no guarantee that he or she won’t get fired.”
Herwin criticized the RSPO’s handling of a prior complaint against Indofood for its treatment of workers, arguing the roundtable should suspend the company’s membership until it addresses the issue.
Responding to the latest report, Muhammad Waras, an executive at Indofood subsidiary London Sumatra, said the company had complied with existing regulations on labor in Indonesia, such as minimum wage, child labor, freedom to form labor unions, safety standards and other points.
“So far, we haven’t had any dispute with labor unions in North Sumatra and we have a harmonious relationship,” he said in an email. “We also have an internal mechanism of report and complaint if there are violations [of] labor policies. So if there are violations, we could settle them through our mechanism. Our compliance is also monitored by local labor authorities.”
Eco-Business published this story with permission from Mongabay.