The Palm Scribe

Brutal Treatment of Female Workers in Palm Oil Production

In a report of an investigation it had conducted, the Associated Press (AP) exposed the brutal and unfair treatment that is often experienced by female workers in the palm oil industry in Indonesia and Malaysia.

“The Associated Press conducted the first comprehensive investigation to focus on the brutal treatment of women in palm oil production, including the hidden specter of sexual harassment, from verbal abuse and threats to rape. This is part of a deeper look at the industry that exposes widespread abuses in both countries, including human trafficking, child labor and direct slavery,” AP wrote on its official website.

Apart from immoral acts, women workers in the palm oil sector also faced injustice in terms of unfair pay, lack of health insurance, and forced underage labor, all of which were continuing up to this day.

AP gave the example of a 16-year-old teenage girl who recounted how her boss had forced her to have sex with him on an Indonesian oil palm plantation, threatening her with an ax not to tell anyone about it.

At another plantation, a woman named Ola (not her real name) complained that she often caught fever, coughed and suffered from frequent nosebleed because she had never received proper personal protective equipment to safely spray pesticide for years.

Ita, a young mother, mourned her two miscarriages that she believed happened because she had to constantly carry loads that weighed more than her own body weight, under the threat of dismissal if she refused to do it.

The investigation showed that female workers were burdened with arduous and dangerous jobs in the palm oil industry, spending hours in water tainted with chemicals, carrying loads so heavy that, over time, their uterus collapsed and protruded. All these works were also done without reasonable pay, usually limited to the minimum daily wage.

Hotler “Zidane” Parsaoran of the Indonesian NGO group Sawit Watch said that “almost all plantations have labor problems, but conditions for female workers are much worse than for male workers.”

The two countries have different responses to what was happening behind the scenes of the palm oil industry. The Malaysian government said that they had yet not received any report of immoral acts that had occurred in plantations.

Meanwhile, the Indonesian government while acknowledging that immoral, physical and sexual violations took place in plantation and presented a growing problem, s solution was not yet at hand.

The palm oil industry is a fast growing industry due to the extensive use of the commodity as a raw material for a wide range of products such as cooking oil, mixture for diesel fuel, cleaning materials, to various beauty and personal care products.

“In almost every oil palm plantation, worker supervisors are generally men, which open the door to immoral acts and sexual harassment,” wrote AP on its investigative website.

Rosita Nengsih, director of the Legal Aid Institute for Women, Children and Families in West Kalimantan province, said that most victims were reluctant to report rape to the authorities, preferring or sometimes being forced to resort to the “peace solutions” path.

Even the victim’s family were sometimes being paid to remain silent. Sometimes parents also forced their daughters to marry their rapists to avoid further embarrassment, often after a pregnancy had occurred.

Nengsih recalls a case involving two 13-year-old Indonesian girls who worked on Malaysian plantations with their parents and said they were repeatedly raped by the same supervisor until both became pregnant within four months.

The conditions experienced by these women were in stark contrast to the “Women’s Empowerment” or “Women’s Equality” movement which was widely promoted by well-known beauty product brands such as L’Oréal or Unilever which mostly use palm oil in their production processes.

Popular Unilever soap brand Dove, for example, said on its labelthat: “Dove believes beauty is for everyone.” And L’Oréal says it was working to root out sexual harassment “because we are all equal.”

Several large companies in the beauty industry such as L’Oreal, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Avon and Johnson & Johnson all use palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia.

The beauty, make-up and body care industry was continuing to grow in the market, although many studies showed that this growth was not followed by a public awareness that many of their daily products contained palm oil.

Many of the women “empowered” to help the beauty industry often have to carry several tanks of toxic chemical pesticides weighing more than 13 kilograms to spray oil palm plantations, carrying up to 240 liters per day.

“Our life is very difficult,” said Ola, who has worked as a daily laborer in Indonesia for 10 years and every day felt the pain of waking up because she has had to repeatedly lift heavy loads. “After the spraying, my nose sometimes bleeds. I think it is related to pesticides, ” she told the AP journalists.

She could not wear a mask because it was too hot to breathe. She said the company does not provide medical care for daily workers, whereas she herself did not have money to pay for the doctor’s fees.

At a different location, a journalist gave a lipstick worth Rp250,000 to a worker named Defrida and told her that the lipstick contained palm oil. Defrida examined the silver cover and pink lipstick closely – first with intrigue, but later with disgust.

The woman who has to spray pesticides over an area of 30 hectares to be able to buy one such lipstick, could only urge buyers of  products containing palm oil to also think about the fate of the female workers in the palm oil industry.

“Dear God!” she exclaimed. “Please pay attention to our lives.”

More from Didiet Nugraha.
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