Key findings of The Associated Press’ investigation into the treatment of female palm oil workers in Indonesia and Malaysia:
— Women on plantations often face sexual abuse, ranging from verbal harassment and threats to rape, and victims rarely speak out. When they do, companies often don’t take action or police charges are either dropped or not filed because it comes down to the accuser’s word against the man’s. Accusations are typically settled through “peace solutions” in which the victim’s family may be paid off. Sometimes, the victims’ parents force them to marry their rapists to lessen the shame, often after pregnancy occurs.
— Female workers routinely carry out some of the industry’s most punishing jobs, lugging loads so heavy that their uteruses collapse and spraying dangerous pesticides wearing no protective gear. Most don’t have access to health care or can’t afford it because they are hired on a day-to-day basis without benefits. Many work without pay to help their husbands meet otherwise impossible daily quotas.
— The AP used U.S. Customs records, product ingredient lists and the latest published data from producers, traders and buyers to link the laborers’ palm oil and its derivatives from the mills that process it to the supply chains of many big Western brands — including some that source from plantations where women said they were raped. It was found in the supply chains of some of the biggest names in the $530 billion beauty business, including L’Oréal, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Avon and Johnson & Johnson. A wide range of abuses also were linked to mills and plantations that have been certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an association that promotes ethical production, including provisions to safeguard laborers.
— Women interviewed by the AP detailed a series of health issues, ranging from dizzy spells, nosebleeds, difficulty breathing and blurry vision, with activists saying some workers totally lost their sight. A number of women said they feared their strenuous work – along with the chemicals they routinely handle and breathe – caused their infertility, miscarriages and stillbirths.
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