The edible vegetable oil is a key ingredient in many everyday goods, from biscuits to shampoo and make-up, and growing demand has led to a boom in the industry in Indonesia, which is the world’s top producer of the commodity.
But palm oil has long been controversial, and a new Amnesty report said it found a “wide range of abuses” at Indonesian plantations.
Palm oil from the sites could be traced to nine global firms, including Kellogg’s, Nestle, Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever, it said.
Amnesty spoke to 120 workers on plantations owned by two subsidiaries of Singapore-based agribusiness Wilmar International and three Wilmar suppliers, on Sumatra island and the Indonesian part of Borneo.
“Companies are turning a blind eye to exploitation of workers in their supply chain,” said Meghna Abraham, senior investigator at Amnesty International.
“Big brands continue to profit from appalling abuses. These findings will shock any consumer who thinks they are making ethical choices in the supermarket when they buy products that claim to use sustainable palm oil.”
Among the abuses Amnesty said it had uncovered were children as young as eight doing hazardous work on plantations, and women being forced to toil for long hours for salaries below the minimum wage.
Workers suffered injuries from paraquat, a toxic chemical used as a weed killer, were put at risk by exposure to smog from forest fires, and had to work long hours to meet “ridiculously high targets”, Amnesty said.
The palm oil industry has been repeatedly accused over the years of failing to protect workers’ rights and tearing down protected rainforest to make way for plantations, prompting many companies to pledge greater efforts to improve working conditions and halt deforestation.
Wilmar said in a statement that it “recognises and respects the rights of all workers”, and welcomed the report.
“It helps highlight labour issues within the wider palm oil industry and in Indonesia specifically,” Wilmar said, adding it put great effort into dealing with labour issues and was already investigating allegations raised in the report.
Unilever, which supplies a range of top consumer products from Magnum ice cream to Dove toiletries, said it recognised that “much more needs to be done to tackle these deeply concerning social issues”, and pledged to play “a leading role in addressing this challenge”.
Kellogg’s said it was committed to getting palm oil from “certified sources that are environmentally appropriate”.
Colgate-Palmolive, whose brands include Colgate toothpaste, said it was concerned about the allegations and would “hold Wilmar accountable for addressing any issues”.
Nestle said it was working to “improve supplier behaviour in the palm oil industry”.
The company added: “Practices such as those identified in Amnesty International’s report have no place in our supply chain.”