At palm oil fields linked to top beauty brands, 'women labourers are raped and abused'

Updated: 19 November, 2020 10:35 IST | Agencies | Sumatra

She describes how her boss raped her amid the tall trees on an Indonesian palm oil plantation that feeds into some of the world's best-known cosmetic brands. He then put an ax to her throat and warned her: Do not tell

This combination shows women holding products made by Western firms that source palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia
This combination shows women holding products made by Western firms that source palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia

With his hand clamped tightly over her mouth, she could not scream, the 16-year-old girl recalls — and no one was around to hear her anyway. She describes how her boss raped her amid the tall trees on an Indonesian palm oil plantation that feeds into some of the world's best-known cosmetic brands. He then put an ax to her throat and warned her: Do not tell.

At another plantation, a woman named Ola complains of fevers, coughing and nose bleeds after years of spraying dangerous pesticides with no protective gear. Making just $2 a day, with no health benefits, she can't afford to see a doctor. Hundreds of miles away, Ita, a young wife, mourns the two babies she lost in the third trimester. She regularly lugged loads several times her weight throughout both pregnancies, fearing she would be fired if she did not. These are the invisible women of the palm oil industry, among the millions of daughters, mothers and grandmothers who toil on vast plantations across Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia, which together produce 85 percent of the world's most versatile vegetable oil.

A woman who sprays pesticides displays the raw, irritated skin on her foot and damaged toenails she blames on the chemicals, in Sumatra. Pics/AP
A woman who sprays pesticides displays the raw, irritated skin on her foot and damaged toenails she blames on the chemicals, in Sumatra. Pics/AP

The Associated Press conducted the first comprehensive investigation focusing on the brutal treatment of women in the production of palm oil, including sexual abuse, ranging from verbal harassment and rape threats, child labour, human trafficking and outright slavery. "Almost every plantation has problems related to labour. But the conditions of female workers are far worse than men," said Hotler Parsaoran of the Indonesian nonprofit group Sawit Watch.

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First Published: 19 November, 2020 08:28 IST

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