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The Problem with Palm Oil

Palm oil is everywhere. As a cheap substitute to butter and other trans fats that are solid at room temperature, it has become a ubiquitous ingredient in a wide range of food products, from chocolate and margarine to breakfast cereals, biscuits, frozen pizzas and potato crisps as well as shampoos and cosmetics. It is also readily available, with Malaysia and Indonesia together accounting for 85% of all palm oil produced globally. The oil palms whose fruits are crushed to extract the reddish oil thrive on vast plantations across the tropical countries that contribute significantly to the national economy but have also been blamed for the destruction of natural habitat and degradation of soil. With billions of dollars of investment and millions of jobs at stake, the industry wields enormous power in countries where palm oil is produced on a large scale and has therefore often evaded closer scrutiny. In Indonesia, where over 16 million people are employed in the palm oil industry, much of the work is done by hand due to low labour costs and an abundance of available workers. Entire families of workers move to the plantations and live onsite, working exceedingly long hours to fulfil overly ambitious targets at pay that rarely reaches the minimum wage. When individual contracted workers find themselves unable to fulfil their targets, they are often forced to bring their wives and children in to help out. These workers have even less legal protection than the regular staff who can at least appeal to the so-called "yellow trade unions" (unions managed by the employer) to address their grievances and seek redress.

Women and children who make up the bulk of the so called "kernels" (servant) workforce - those brought in by relatives or friends to help out with the improbably targets set out by the employers - face hazardous working conditions, intimidation and a complete lack of a formal contract that could protect them against the worst excesses of the work place.

According to a report by Amnesty International which looked at the operations of Wilmar, a Singapore-based agri business and the world's largest producer of palm oil, systemic abuses were commonplace on many of the plantations with working children being exposed to hazardous chemicals, some workers being paid as little as USD 2.50 per day and workers being exposed to chemical substances that have long been banned in the EU.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an association of non-profit organisations, palm oil producers, consumer goods manufacturers and investors, has aimed to counteract some of these problems in the palm oil industry since its inception in 2004. Though criticised by some groups who feel that it doesn't sufficiently address the environmental degradation of the palm oil industry, the RSPO has tried to develop a set of global standards by which production can be measured. It meets once a year and now counts some 3,082 members.

Chris de Bode was given exclusive access to one of Wilmar's plantations in Indonesia where he was able to document working practices, meet some of the workers and assess the state of the palm oil industry in this part of the world where it acts as a major employer but has also been accused of workplace abuses and the precipitous loss of habitat.

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