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Adam's Story:
From Freedom to Slavery & Back


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Forced Labor on Palm Oil Plantations in Indonesia

Photo Slideshow


When Schuster Institute investigative reporter E. Benjamin Skinner and others on the reporting team met Adam (not his real name), he was 21 years old. He was also a former slave, according to his and other former PT 198 oil palm plantation workers’ accounts. Adam said his nightmare began in 2010 when he was 19 and found himself trapped on an oil palm plantation in the district of Berau in East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo in Indonesia. The pictures in this slideshow, taken by Skinner, provide not just scenery, but depict the journey Adam took to get from his home in Nias to the oil palm plantation where he said he was confined as a forced laborer. 

Click on the photos above to see full-size images. The slideshow function is limited in how much description it can hold. Full text is therefore included below.

On this page
Slides 1 - 14, with captions
Links to other sections
Forced Labor on
Palm Oil Plantations

   1 | Photo Slideshow:

        Adam's Journey <

   2 | Industry, Investors, Activists,
        Media Response


From Palm Fruit
to Product
Human Rights Abuses
& Other Controversies


Palm Oil Industry Response

Photo | E. Benjamin Skinner 

Photo | E. Benjamin Skinner 

Photo | E. Benjamin Skinner 

Photo | E. Benjamin Skinner 

Photo | E. Benjamin Skinner 

Photo | E. Benjamin Skinner 

Photo | E. Benjamin Skinner 

Photo | E. Benjamin Skinner 

Photo | E. Benjamin Skinner 

Photo | E. Benjamin Skinner 

Photo | "Jonathan" 

Photo | E. Benjamin Skinner 

Slide 1 - A typical house in Nias: This is a typical house near Gunung Sitoli, a village on the island of Nias where Adam and his former plantation block-mates call home. Adam, an alleged former slave at the PT 198 oil palm plantation in Berau, lived in Nias until 2010, when at age 19, he said he was recruited by labor contractor Atisama Zendrato to work on a palm oil plantation in East Kalimantan. Of the 131 islands off Northern Sumatra, Nias is the largest. The 2010 census recorded more than 750,000 inhabitants. Most residents of Nias are Protestant Christians, unlike most other Indonesians, who are Muslim.

Slide 2 - Labor recruiter Zendrato’s childhood home: Local villagers told Skinner that this is the childhood home of Atisama Zendrato. It is near Adam's village, Gunung Sitoli, on the island of Nias. Although labor recruiter Zendrato was living in Sumatra in the spring of 2013 and reportedly works in Sumatra and Kalimantan—where most of the Indonesian palm industry is concentrated—villagers told Skinner that Zendrato often recruits workers from his home village.

Slide 3 - Adam traveled by ferry (similar to the one shown; it should be noted this is not the actual ferry that Adam boarded) to Sumatra: Adam said about 20 workers (ages 14-50), including himself, traveled by ferry from the island of Nias to Sumatra, where he said they stayed at labor recruiter Atisama Zendrato’s home in Duri for two weeks before the next step in their journey to the oil palm plantations in East Kalimantan. While in Duri, Adam said he and other recruits were not allowed to leave Zendrato's home.

Slide 4 - Adam's work contract: Adam provided reporters this contract (redacted for privacy reasons) with CV Sinar Kalimantan, the small, Indonesia-based labor contracting company for which Atisama Zendrato worked. Before leaving Zendrato’s home in Duri, Adam and his fellow employees said that they were told to sign contracts, that Zendrato threatened to beat them if they did not sign, and that the new recruits would be held responsible for paying the costs of their return trip to Nias, an exorbitant expense for them.

The contracts bound the workers to Zendrato’s boss, a Malaysian based in Medan, North Sumatra, named M. Handoyo, and compelled them “to work without the freedom to choose the type of work, to be obliged to do any work as asked by the employer.” Under the terms, the daily wage was dropped to $5 per day. 


Zendrato allegedly said CV Sinar Kalimantan would not pay workers anything for two years, instead “loaning” them up to $16 per month for necessities such as rudimentary healthcare or food beyond the meager rations they would receive on the plantation. The contract stated that workers would not be allowed to leave the plantation, even temporarily, without permission, and that the recruiting company “will not accept any reason/excuse whatsoever from the [worker] to go back to his/her village during the [two-year] term of this contract.”

The wages listed in the contract would be considered typical, or even good for the palm oil industry in Indonesia, where the regional minimum wage in 2012 was about $120 (IDR 1,180,000) per month, according to Ponidi Maruan, director of the Berau-based environmental NGO Menapak. The Indonesian government has since increased minimum wages for provinces around the country. East Kalimantan, where PT 198 is located, now has a minimum wage of 1.752 million rupiah ($180).

Skinner learned that contracts are rare in the palm oil industry because many workers are treated as day laborers even though they may work for months or more at a plantation. Skinner learned in his interviews with day laborers that they are especially at risk of falling into debt bondage because emergencies or healthcare needs may force them to take a loan from the company, loans they may not be able to repay which results in their becoming indebted to the company.

Slide 5 - Raking palm fruit on side of road: A man separates palm fruit from bunches on the side of the road in Riau, on the island of Sumatra, several hours from Zendrato’s home. After weeks of reporting in Indonesia, Skinner says sights like this are common on roads near plantations throughout Indonesia. 


Slide 6 - Berau boat: This boat is like many on the Segah River, the most direct way in July 2010 to reach the PT 198 plantation from the city of Berau in East Kalimantan. Berau is the nearest city to the PT 198 oil palm plantation where Adam and the new recruits were supposed to work. Adam said he and his companions traveled more than 2,000 miles from Nias by car, boat and airplane to reach Berau. 


Slide 7 - PT 198 plantation photo: Palm trees line the road leading to the PT 198 oil palm plantation in East Kalimantan. When Adam arrived at PT 198, he said he was told by Zendrato’s staff that they would be “forced to work” and that even children have to work, without days off, including Sundays. He said he heard a story of one worker who tried to run away—but Zendrato’s “guys” found him and beat him in front of the other workers and then transported him to another barrack.

Adam told Skinner he'd heard several stories from his co-workers about abusive incidents before he arrived at the plantation. For instance, upon hearing that two 14-year-old boys who were not working, Zendrato banged their heads together to punish them. Adam said that workers did not consider calling the local police because of Zendrato's close relationship with them.


Another worker at the PT 198 plantation told Skinner that she observed Zendrato beating a man who was not working one day. She added that if workers who tried to escape from the plantation were caught, then they would be brought back to the barracks and beaten.


Slide 8 - Barracks, PT 198: These are the barracks at the PT 198 oil palm plantation where Adam and other workers from Nias lived. They have since been replaced by newer buildings. Adam said Zendrato and staff closely supervised the employees he had recruited from Nias, about 200 people in total, all of whom lived in these or similar barracks.

Adam said Zendrato and his staff monitored workers’ movements, and at night locked the doors of the windowless barracks from the outside. If workers needed to use the bathroom at night, Adam said they had to waken the guards outside the door so they could use the outdoor latrine. If the guards didn’t let them out, Adam said they were sometimes forced to urinate on the floor or defecate in plastic bags or shoes instead. He said the stench and the heat were overwhelming.

It was customary for between five and seven people to share a room measuring three meters by four meters, according to Menapak’s Maruan. 

Workers on other blocks at the PT 198 plantation—which could be as far as two kilometers from the Nias workers’ blocks—told Skinner that Zendrato was the only supervisor with a reputation for violence.

Slide 9 - New barracks, PT 198: These are new barracks at the PT 198 oil palm plantation and are reserved for permanent workers (as opposed to day laborers).

The PT 198 plantation is owned by the top shareholder of the Malaysia-based palm oil giant Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad (KLK). KLK owns more than 200K hectares (494K acres) of land for oil palm tree planting in Indonesia and Malaysia, according to the company's annual report. There are 5.407M hectares (13.36M acres) of land under oil palm cultivation in Indonesia according to Indonesia's Ministry of Agriculture. 


Shipping records show that KLK has sold palm oil to agribusiness and manufacturing giants such as Cargill, the chemical manufacturer BASF, and Procter & Gamble.

Slide 10 - Truck at a loading station: A truck waits for a load of palm fruit near the PT 198 oil palm plantation in East Kalimantan. Adam said he believed he had been recruited to drive a truck at PT 198, but upon arriving at PT 198, he said Zendrato told him he would have to spray herbicides instead. In an interview, Adam said even though he did not want to spray the herbicides, he felt he could not leave his job because his “ID was in Zendrato’s hands.” Confiscating identification documents is a common practice among human traffickers.

Another former PT 198 oil palm plantation worker told Skinner that Zendrato had promised him a position as a supervisor, but instead made him work in the field. According to their contracts (see slide 4) workers don't have the freedom to choose their type of work.


Slide 11 - Berau Coal from the river: Deciding they could not tolerate the working conditions at the PT 198 oil palm plantation or the prospect of waiting two years to get paid for their work, Adam told Skinner he and his cousin decided to try to escape. One night after persuading the guards to let them go to the latrine, Adam said they camouflaged themselves with blankets and ran through the brush to the road behind the latrine. A truck driver stopped and picked them up. Fortunately for the two young men, the driver was from nearby Berau Coal (BC). Adam said a colleague of the driver's allowed them to hide out on his boat for three days.

Adam said they could not afford the trip back to Nias but were able to find work in Berau. 


One month later, after another escaped worker was caught and beaten, a supervisor at PT 198 alerted authorities to the conditions at the plantation. Police from central Berau arrested Zendrato and held him for a day before releasing him without charges. His arrest caught the attention of Menapak, which notified Jakarta-based Sawit Watch, a palm oil watchdog group, and SBSI, a national labor union. On Sept. 24, 2010, Menapak representatives traveled downriver and helped the workers walk away.

Slide 12- Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad (KLK): In early November 2010, after Rainforest Action Network reported on the abuses at PT 198, representatives of KLK, the plantation’s manager, reached out to the organizations that had investigated the charges. Three workers, including a 14-year-old boy, met with senior KLK officials, who at the time were attending the annual Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) meeting in Jakarta. The officials apologized to the workers for their treatment and said they were unaware of the abuses. They agreed to pay for their return journeys to Nias and to compensate them for their stolen pay. According to KLK CEO Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Lee Oi Hian, the company canceled the contract of CV Sinar Kalimantan and blacklisted the contractor. After the meeting, KLK said “we discovered (but not able to prove) that one of our contract agents had been providing some under-age workers, and also illegally withholding some wages.” 


Adam said he never received any wages nor was he offered passage home. Another former worker said he received only $100 from KLK even though he worked at the PT 198 oil palm plantation for two years and suffered medical conditions from exposure to the herbicides.


Meanwhile, though claims of workers and managers conflict, it appears that both Zendrato and his boss, Handoyo, may still be involved with KLK. In the fall of 2012, Zendrato attempted to pay at least four men to recruit workers for new plantations in Borneo and Sumatra, according to recordings made by the workers. Several people in contact with Zendrato last fall said he was still recruiting and managing workers for Handoyo’s brother, Hendra, a contractor of PT Adei, a plantation company in the Sumatran province of Riau. Since 1996, KLK has owned 95 percent of PT Adei.


Though Hendra did not respond to requests for comment, he denied to KLK that he employed Zendrato. Reached by phone, Zendrato acknowledges continuing to work in the palm oil industry but denies being involved in any labor abuses at PT 198. “Why are you looking for this ‘Zendrato’?” he asked. “I did not treat people unjustly, nor did I cheat them by not paying their wages.”


KLK’s Lee told Skinner that “it is not our policy to condone abuse of workers, ‘slavery’ practices, or exploitation of workers.” He stressed that the company requires contractors to adhere to
“rules and regulations of the country” including minimum wage standards, but that KLK management “does not regulate the workers. Some of these workers, of course, are employed by the contractors. But subsequent to the complaints raised by the NGOs... our management is very well aware that they have to check on the contractors.” He said the company is “moving more and more to direct hire practices.”


Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) headquartered in Malaysia and is one of the country's leading companies in terms of market capitalization. 


Learn more about the RSPO and sustainable palm oil>



Slide 13 - Child spraying herbicides, PT Langgam plantation (an oil palm plantation not associated with PT 198 or KLK): A 12-year-old boy in the PT Langgam plantation in Sumatra carries a backpack of herbicides to spray on the palm trees. This child told the Schuster Institute's source (another worker at the plantation) that he had worked for PT Langgam for about four months, and that he had his own employment arrangement with the company even though his parents also worked there. He said he did not attend school, and was expected to spray the highly toxic chemical Paraquat on two hectares (nearly five acres) of land every day.

In 1999, Indonesia ratified the International Labour Organization's Convention 138, which sets the minimum working age at 15. In 2000, it ratified Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, which seeks to prohibit and eliminate “work which…is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.” Indonesia's labor laws, however, are still based on Dutch Colonial Government Ordinance of 1925, which sets the actual legal working age at 12. Act No. 1 of 1951 raised that age to 14, but it was never implemented, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of International Labor Affairs. The Indonesian government has announced plans, through its Manpower Act, to eliminate child labor by 2020. 

The Schuster Institute reporting team found incidents of child labor on the 12 palm oil plantations in Indonesia it visited, and heard reports of child labor at the PT 198 palm oil plantation, but did not witness it. The U.S. Department of Labor’s "List of Goods Produced with Child Labor and Forced Labor" lists child labor in the palm oil industry in Indonesia. This photo was taken by another worker on the plantation in the fall of 2012.  



Slide 14 - Hands: The hands of a 30-year-old worker at PT Langgam (an oil palm plantation that is not associated with PT 198 or KLK) in Sumatra show calluses and chemical burns from the herbicides workers spray on the palm trees. When Skinner was visiting this plantation, laborers here reported typically working from 6 a.m. to 5 or 7 p.m., longer than the schedules reported by harvesters at other plantations.

Workers interviewed said they often sprayed herbicides every day and did not wear any protective clothing or masks. They said the canisters of herbicides they carried on their backs frequently leaked onto the sprayers' clothes and skin, resulting in chemicals burns. One of the herbicides used in the palm oil industry, Paraquat, has been banned in 32 countries because of its toxicity and links to cancer and Parkinson’s disease. Some workers reported having trouble breathing because of the herbicides. According to one of Zendrato’s former transporters, men usually sprayed herbicides and women applied fertilizer.

The harvester whose hands are photographed here said he is now indebted to the owners of the PT Langgam palm oil plantation—a situation referred to as debt bondage, a form of modern-day slavery—because he took out a loan from the company to pay for his wife’s emergency healthcare and has not been able to pay it back.



Photo | E. Benjamin Skinner 

1. Forced labor and child labor on palm oil plantations 
    1 |Photo slideshow of Adam's journey
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