By Rowenna Hoskin | Science Editor
[Disclaimer: this article covers subjects that some readers may find disturbing. If you have been affected by any of the topics in this article please don’t hesitate to contact student support on [email protected]]
Indonesia is home to some of the most sought after oil in the world – palm oil. This oil is in everything from shampoos and cereals to biscuits and peanut butter. Whether you are spreading Nutella on toast in the morning, or applying L’Oreal foundation, it is very unlikely that you are thinking about the invisible women that are being brutally exploited in the palm oil plantations where these product’s components come from.
Earning an average of $2 a day, these women are made to do back breaking work leaving them with long term health problems. Forced to work on a zero hour contract, women working on palm oil plantations have no job security and are routinely harassed and raped.
One woman told The South China Morning Post that her boss raped her and got her pregnant:
‘First of all, he harassed me. Then, when we were at the plantation, he began to threaten me by saying, “if you don’t give me your body, I will chop your neck with this axe.” Then he started to open my shirt and raped me. When he finished he spat on me.’ Leaving her abused and violated, this man also left her with a baby that he refuses to bear any responsibility for.
This is just one example of this kind of abuse; with an estimated 7.6 million women working in these conditions there are countless other accounts of women experiencing sexual abuse ranging from verbal harassment and threats, to rape. The perpetrators are rarely brought to justice as the victims do not speak out for fear of losing their income. When they do speak out, police charges are often dropped as it comes down to a man’s word against a woman’s. These accusations are typically settled through “peace solutions” involving the victim’s family being paid off. Women are still largely oppressed in Indonesia and victim’s families often force the victim to marry her rapist in order to lessen the shame – often pregnancy reoccurs.
Not only do women experience sexual abuse on plantations, they are left with life-changing health problems. Hotler Parsaoran, a Worker advocate for Sawit Watch says: ‘Our findings in Kalimantan showed, women workers got pneumonia, or were blinded by pesticide. It also happened in Sumatra, where you can get contaminated from herbicide, but the company won’t take any responsibility. We can see that the condition of women workers is far worse than men. Most of the women workers at the [palm oil] plantation are casual workers who don’t have any job security and no insurance.’
“I think our hips and shoulders suffer the most because we have to carry the sprayer tank. We can feel pain in our stomach and hips because we have to carry 20kg chemical tanks on our hips. It also can cause a prolapse” which is the collapsing of the womb, explains one female palm oil worker.
Rafail Walangitan, from the Ministry of Women Empowerment and Child protection says: “at the moment the ministry of Women Empowerment and Child protection, we are working hard to create what we call the House of Women Workers, the safe house is what we call it, a safe house for the women workers in the plantations area, or in the plantation industry. So we have a long way to go to make this all good conditions for the women and children in the future. Still, we have to work hard on this.”
The AP used U.S Customs records, products ingredients lists and the most recently published data from producers, traders and buyers to link the laborers’ palm oil and it’s derivatives from the processing mills to the supply chains of many big brands, including L’Oreal. A wide range of abuses were linked to plantations that have been certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an association that promotes ethical production, including provisions to safeguard laborers.
It is evident that more must be done to ensure the safety of these women, to ensure that plantations are not certified as ‘ethical’ based on environmental standards alone, in order to improve the rights of women in developing countries.
If you have been affected by any of the topics in this article please don’t hesitate to contact student support on [email protected]
Science and Technology Rowenna Hoskin