Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism
at Brandeis University
i n v e s t i g a t i o n s
Our investigation reveals that some palm oil--the most widely used vegetable oil in the world--is produced with slave labor. Palm oil is in all the products above, and many more.
Palm Oil Controversies
Photo | Center for International Forestry Research
Insert Photo: Kemal Jufri, Bloomberg Businessweek
Industry, Investor, Advocacy,
Media & Other Response
A worker on a palm oil plantation in Indonesia hauls palm fruit bunches on his motorcycle. Once palm fruit is harvested, it must get to the mill for processing within 48 hours. This photo is for illustrative purposes only.
The following is a selection of responses from industry, media, and advocacy organizations since our investigation into human rights abuses on oil palm plantations in Indonesia was published at Bloomberg's Businessweek.com on July 18, 2013.
Our article, "Indonesia's Palm Oil Industry Rife with Human Rights Abuses," July 22, 2013, Bloomberg Businessweek, received a 2014 Clarion Award from the Association for Women in Communications in the category of Magazines - Feature Article, External Publication - Circulation of 500,000 or more - Current News.
Palm Oil Industry Response
Kuala Lumpur Kepong (KLK), the company that owns the oil palm plantation in Indonesia where former workers told the Schuster Institute team of reporters they were trapped and forced to work, responded to the published report in a letter to the editor at Bloomberg Businessweek:
KLK Letter to the Editor, July 24, 2013
Following our team’s questioning prior to publication of the investigative report, Nestlé and Archer Daniels Midland pledged in May 2013 to investigate whether their palm oil supplier knowingly trafficked workers and their children.
Cargill, while initially defending its palm oil supplier KLK, wrote in an emailed statement to Rainforest Action Network that they had "contacted KLK regarding these allegations to seek clarification and to register our concern. We have also been in touch with the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO); at present it has not received any formal complaint but it is considering whether any action is necessary... If it is confirmed that KLK is breaking local laws or contravening the RSPO criteria then we will take action." Read the full report at FoodNavigator.com.
Unilever, named in our investigation, announced its commitment in November of 2013 to buy 100% of its palm oil from “traceable” and “known” sources by the end of 2014.
Wilmar International, the world’s largest palm oil trading company and leading palm oil producer, announced its commitment to producing only products that are free from links to deforestation and abuse of human rights.
Golden Agri Resources, the world's second largest palm oil plantation company, pledged to apply a "no deforestation" policy across all its third-party palm oil suppliers.
In response to Green Century Capital Management’s petition—which directly cited the Bloomberg article as an example of labor violations on palm oil plantations—the Kellogg Company announced its commitment to “sustainable” palm oil production, including its promise to buy palm oil that “prohibit[s] use of forced and child labor, and human trafficking.”
Colgate-Palmolive issued a new policy of "no deforestation" and full traceablity of their supply back to the plantation by 2015. The policy states that Colgate will:
"Work with suppliers who respect and comply with human and labor rights as in all areas of our business."
General Mills strengthened its sourcing policy for palm oil while maintaining a position to source 100% of its palm oil from "sustainable and responsible sources by 2015."
Safeway, the second largest U.S. grocery store chain, pledged to work with suppliers towards the "ultimate goal of having a fully traceable supply chain free of deforestation, expansion on carbon–rich peat lands, illegally held lands, human rights violations and forced and child labor, including slavery and human trafficking, for all the products we manufacture."
Procter & Gamble committed to a "no deforestation" policy and maintains its position to protect workers and indigenous peoples' rights.
Mondelez International bolstered its commitment to purchase "palm oil that's produced on legally held land; that doesn't lead to deforestation or loss of peat land; respects human rights, including land rights; and doesn't use forced or child labor."
J.M. Smucker strengthened its policies around palm oil, commiting to source "fully sustainable and traceable palm oil supply chain" through which it will source 100% of its palm oil.
Food manufacturing giant ConAgra Foods pledged to eliminate from its supply of palm oil all suppliers engaged in forest destruction for palm oil.
Investors' Shareholder Advocacy
Green Century Capital Management, a Boston-based investment advisory firm, together with 40 institutional investors from around the world, cited the Schuster Institute-Bloomberg Businessweek article in their petition to palm oil producers, financiers of palm oil, and major snack food companies.
The petition urges "major stakeholders in the palm oil industry to adopt policies that would ensure palm oil development does not contribute to deforestation, development on peatlands, or human rights violations. The coalition of investors, representing approximately $270 billion in assets under management, sent letters to 40 major palm oil producers, financiers and consumers including Wilmar, Golden Agri Resources*, Unilever*, and HSBC."
Shareholders of Mead Johnson Nutrition cited the Schuster Institute-Bloomberg Businessweek article in its petition to the company's board of directors to "adopt, implement and monitor a comprehensive sustainable palm oil sourcing policy." The shareholder resolution was published on the website of Ceres, another Boston-based business and investment advisory organization that launched and coordinates the Ceres' Investor Network on Climate Risk, and tracks shareholder resolutions.
Environmental & Human Rights Advocacy
In response to the article, the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) launched a petition calling for an end to palm oil plantation abuses; other RAN outreach based on our article received over 20,000 responses.
RAN also cited the article in their subsequent campaign, Conflict Palm Oil. In private conversations, RAN told us that, because of our article’s firsthand evidence, corporate executives will now talk with them about human rights abuses on Indonesian plantations because they are now more afraid of consumer outrage since our article was published.
The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) also used the investigation to leverage their appeal for reform in the palm oil industry, creating a petition based on the Bloomberg Businessweek article, and citing the investigation in a November 2013 publication it produced with Sawit Watch called "Empty Assurances."
The ILRF reported that hundreds of palm oil workers and allies protested at the eleventh annual RSPO meeting in November 2013, demanding worker representation in RSPO leadership and changes in policy on palm plantations to protect worker rights.
Forest Heros cited the article in their call to Kellogg for reform in the palm oil industry.
Sawit Watch: Tell Cargill you're outraged
Rainforest Action Network: Petition: Tell Cargill you're outraged
Our report at Businessweek.com, "Indonesia's Palm Oil Industry Rife With Human Rights Abuses," led Rainforest Action Network (RAN) to launch a new campaign against Cargill, who, as RAN reiterated in their blog, initially defended their supplier KLK. RAN posed specific questions to Cargill in an open letter citing the Bloomberg article, and released their own report about child labor on a KLK oil palm plantation. RAN told us they received more than 20,000 responses within a week of their new campaign, which included a petition that was sent to Cargill.
International Labor Rights Forum: Petition: Stop Using Slavery in Palm Oil
Media Response: Radio
Journalist investigates labour in the palm oil industry, interview with E. Benjamin Skinner, 8/9, Checkpoint, Radio New Zealand.
Palm Oil's Unsavory Beginnings, interview with E. Benjamin Skinner, 8/7, Morning Shift, WBEZ Chicago Public Radio.
Palm Oil & Human Rights Abuses, interview with E. Benjamin Skinner, 7/22, The Takeaway.
Media Response: Online
Palm Oil - Certification Process Offers Producers an Option to Buy Their Way Green
Joyce Nelson, Nov-Dec 2013, Watershed Sentinel.
Liberating Opportunities: Anti-Slavery Day
10/18/13, Health in Harmony.
Our Groceries are Wiping Out Orangutans and Enslaving Workers
Piper Hoffman, 9/25/13, Care2.
Alvin Ung, 8/26/13, The Star Online.
Palm Oil: Bloomberg report reveals terrible working conditions
8/16/13, International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF).
Adria Vasil, 8/15/14, NowToronto.com.
Report: Indonesia’s Palm Oil Industry Rife with Human Rights Abuses
8/13/13, First Peoples Worldwide.
On World Indigenous People’s Day: The Case of Palm Oil
Sara Santiago, 8/9/13, TriplePundit.com.
Respecting Indigenous Rights: The Case of Palm Oil
Sara Santiago,8/8, Future500.org
Indonesian palm oil faces EU bar over tax loophole
Human Rights Abuses in Indonesian Palm Oil
From Benjamin Skinner's article in Bloomberg Businessweek
7/23, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Child Labor and Human-Rights Abuses Widespread in Indonesia’s Palm Oil Industry, 7/22, One Green Planet.
Children are for school not palm oil plantations
News You Really Need to See: "Indonesia's Palm Oil Rife with Human Rights Abuses," 7/22, Not What You Might Think.
Bloomberg Businessweek Uncovers Human Rights Abuses in Palm Oil Industry
July 2013, Verite.
Is There Slavery In Your Supermarket? Popular Palm Oil Linked to Slave-like Conditions in Indonesia, 7/24, New England Center for Investigative Reporting.
Palm Oil is Unhealthy, Especially If You Make It
Lindsay Beyerstein, 7/24, The Sidney Hillman Foundation.
Labor abuse widespread in Indonesia's palm oil industry, finds investigation
Article Unveils the Human Toll of Palm Oil
Lori Bishop, 7/18, Humanity United.
Bloomberg Businessweek: Indonesia's Palm Oil Rife With Human Rights Abuses, 7/18, Alliance to End Slavery &Trafficking.
The Schuster Institute-Bloomberg Businessweek article was cited in:
"The EU Biofuel Policy and Palm Oil: Cutting subsidies or cutting rainforest?" September 2013, Global Subsidies Initiative and the International Institute for Sustainable Development.
"The RSPO Roulette: How Profits Win Over People and Planet,” November 2013, Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific.
Global Slavery Index of 2013, October 2013, Walk Free.
Social Media Response
The Schuster Institute planned and launched a week-long social media campaign through Twitter to get the word out about our article and the larger issue of slavery in the palm oil industry. Social media reports indicated:
Nearly 32 million people had links to the article run through their newsfeeds. (This is based on Twitter networks of users and the number of their followers.)
Over the week that the article was published, roughly 3.4 million people potentially saw our message five times, for 15.5 million touches over-all.
Use of the hashtag #palmoil that together we chose to use jumped from 210,000 impressions the day before the article’s publication to 3 million impressions on the day of publication.
Thought leaders and celebrities, like New York Times columnist Nick Kristof and actor Ashton Kutcher, tweeted about the story to their followers.
Because of our sustained Twitter campaign, the story became the third most shared story on Businessweek.com, a full five days after its initial publication.
Last page update: August 31, 2014
On this page
Palm oil industry response
Media response: radio
Media response: online
Social media response
Links to other sections
1. Forced Labor on
Palm Oil Plantations
2 | Industry, Investors, Activists,
2. From Palm Fruit
3. Human Rights Abuses & Other Controversies