The issue of slavery in Indonesian palm oil plantations has been a favorite morsel for critics and Non-Governmental Organizations, to throw around once in a while to keep interest in their cause alive. Pusaka, an NGO, for example last year still came out with allegations that such a practice was alive and well at a palm oil company in West Papua.
Is this issue real, based on facts, or is it not true, or is it a bit of both? The accused company, like other similar enterprises, of course denied the charge. They claim they fully abide by the rules and regulations, including the Law on Manpower, and the Law on the Protection of Children, as well as by industrial standards such as those of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO).
The government, meanwhile, has the tendency to brush aside those accusations, saying that they were part of a black campaign directed against palm oil, a very efficient source of vegetable oil that remains unrivaled by other crops.
Vice President Jusuf Kalla has said that the government has come out with regulations that clearly eradicated any modern practice of slavery. They included regulations on work hours, age requirements and up to minimum wage arrangements. These all, he said, were in place to prevent slavery from taking place.
How should this issue be perceived?
Slavery is no stranger to Indonesia’s history. Some traditional societies have slave traditions, and in some cases, even caste of slaves. Augustin de Beaulieu, a French General who visited Aceh in the 17th century was quoted by Historian Anthony Reid as having said that “The king uses them to open up forests, dig stones, make cement and to build.”
But slavery saw its peak period by after the arrival of European and the ensuing colonization the Dutch. The Dutch trade corporation VOC was well known for trading in slaves. In the 19th century, the colonial power used slaves to build road and also work in plantations.
In modern time, Law Number 13 of 2003 on Manpower of the Indonesian Republic, that governs relations between entrepreneurs and workers, explicitly prohibit slavery.
“The plantation industry nowadays no longer exploits communities but instead are seeing them as stakeholders with rights guaranteed by the laws and regulations,” Tungkot Sipayung, Executive Director of Palm Oil Agribusiness Strategic Policy Institute (PASPI) told The Palm Scribe.
The government also regulates the wage system by setting a minimum regional wage as well as enumerate the supporting facilities for workers, including in the plantation sector, such as housing, healthcare, and education.
“A lot of workers vie to become employees in palm oil plantations. Why so? Because wages and worker facilities of palm oil plantation workers are much better than those for workers in other sectors,” said Sipayung.
He added that the stigma of slavery that continues to stick to palm oil plantations are the remnants of the days of Dutch colonialism which were now no longer relevant. It is now even more irrelevant considering that the government has been encouraging various sustainability standards, such as the RSPO, ISPO and the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC) among palm oil producers.
But reports of alleged slavery, especially in Indonesia’s palm oil industry continue to pop up. The Deutsche Welle, for example, in 2016 spoke about slavery that has been going on for years in the operation of a major palm oil industry, with the employment of children at low wages and without the required safety equipment, in Kalimantan and Sumatra. A report that showed how weak regulations and standards are enforced in this sprawling archipelago.
NGOs, are also closely actively following this issue. “Actually, the most important is not an agreement on paper but the practice and supervision in the field,” said Maryo Saputra, the head of the campaign division of Sawit Watch, an NGO active in monitoring and supervising the Indonesian palm oil sector.
Saputra said that many palm oil companies still engaged in slavery practices despite of the existing legal prohibitions.
However, before going into the matter of slavery, it is important to be aware that most palm oil companies in Indonesia employ two types of workers – permanent workers and casual workers. The company’s treat these two types of workers differently.
“Thirty percent of workers in palm oil companies are permanent workers while the other 70 percent are casual workers. It is these casual workers who are at the receiving end of very bad treatment,” Saputra said.
And besides of the complexity of the conditions of plantation workers in Indonesia, the definition of slavery in palm oil company also remained vague.
Besides the two afore mentioned types of workers, there is actually another group of palm oil plantation workers – plasma palm oil farmers. Plasma farmers are the main subjects of the people’s plantation development concept of companies. The obligation of the company towards these farmers are to provide them with guidance, assistance and adequate facilities for them to produce and to buy whatever these farmers produced.
The farmers, on the other hand, have to meet the production and sales targets of the company, something which Saputra said could often be difficult to meet. To meet this usually rigorous target, plasma farmers usually have to work long hours. The participation of family members, including children, in helping the breadwinner meet his targets is what often is also perceived as slavery and child exploitation.
“Facilities and allowances are indeed given, but only for the farmer. For the wife and children who help out in the plantation, no allowances are given,” Saputra said.
He said that as long as the plantation belongs to the farmer or his family and there is no company involvement, such an arrangement where the family members help out is considered legal.
Sipayung also pointed to the tradition in families, especially in the regions, where for whatever reasons, all family members assist in helping out the head of the family in his work. These family members are not paid and are not seen as paid workers.
“If the child and the mother go to the field to help the father, that is acceptable, because that is also part of the education process for the child. This actually is a form of protection for the child so that it does not get neglected,” Sipayung said.
It is at this point where the slavery issue enters a gray area, he said. “We have to look at it case by case, whether the practice is voluntary within the family sphere, or is part of a systematic practice by companies,” he said.
The manpower regulations in Indonesia are also deemed to be to general and more specific regulations were needed to overcome the various complexity of the sector. “Workers in the plantation industry differ from those in the manufacture industry. Workers in the manufacture industry are mostly in urban areas while the majority of plantation workers are in the regions, in isolated areas that are difficult to monitor,” Saputra said.
Difficulty in monitoring is what is making it hard for efforts to ensure the protection of workers. Regulations and the facts in the field often do not concur. In one hand, the government wants to pressure down the number of unemployment and protect workers from slavery practices using regulations and laws but weak enforcement in the field tends to push companies to violate the rules and engage in slavery, direct or indirectly.
The question is where is the position of the government in all this? The government, of course, has an interest in balancing economic interest and workers’ welfare, considering that palm oil is a commodity that has been contributing the largest amount of foreign exchange in the past few years. This commodity also plays an important role in rural poverty eradication.
A commitment to act firmly and to engage in routine supervision in the field, become important in controlling slavery practices in Indonesia, and to clean up the image of the palm oil industry from the stains of slavery.
The Association of Palm Oil Producers (GAPKI) in its official stance regarding the accusation of slavery in palm oil plantation, said in its official website in July 2016, that they were “illogical” and challenged those NGOs to bring proof of these cases of slavery and report them to the authority.
The association said that supervision in the field was not the sole responsibility of the government. There was a need for awareness among all stakeholders in the palm oil industry, about the need for everyone to work together in cleaning the image of palm oil and its industry. Certification Institutions such as ISPO and RSPO are also responsible in ensuring that once certified, a company continues to abide by the standards and to honor its commitments.