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Brands including KitKat, Pot Noodle and Colgate toothpaste implicated in Indonesian palm oil child labour abuse

Unilever, Nestlé, Kellogg’s, Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble among household names contributing to labour abuse

‘The brutal truth is that human rights abuse in the supply chain is not viewed as a quality-control issue, but it should be.  Products containing human rights abuses should be viewed as defective’ -  Peter Frankental

The world’s most popular household companies are selling food, cosmetics and other everyday staples containing palm oil tainted by appalling human rights abuses in Indonesia, with children as young as eight working in hazardous conditions, Amnesty International said in a new report published today (30 November).

The 110-page report, The great palm oil scandal: Labour abuses behind big brand names, investigates palm oil plantations in Indonesia run by the world’s biggest palm oil grower, Singapore-based agri-business Wilmar, tracing palm oil to nine global firms: AFAMSA, ADM, Colgate-Palmolive, Elevance, Kellogg’s, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, Reckitt Benckiser and Unilever.

Using export data and information published by Wilmar, Amnesty researchers traced palm oil to the nine global food and household companies. When approached, seven of the firms acknowledged that they buy palm oil from Wilmar’s Indonesian operations, but only two Kellogg’s and Reckitt Benckiser were willing to provide any level of detail about which of their products were affected. Both companies cited “traceability” in the supply chain as a factor over why they had failed to identify or act on abuses at the plants.

Amnesty is calling on all of the firms to tell customers whether the palm oil in popular products like Magnum ice-cream, Colgate toothpaste, Dove cosmetics, Knorr soup, KitKat,  Pantene shampoo, Aero chocolate bars, Ariel, and Pot Noodle come from Wilmar’s Indonesian operation.

Meghna Abraham, Senior Investigator at Amnesty International, said:

“These findings will shock any consumer who thinks they are making ethical choices in the supermarket when they buy products that claim to use sustainable palm oil.

“Corporate giants like Colgate, Nestlé and Unilever assure consumers that their products use ‘sustainable palm oil’, but our findings reveal that it’s anything but.

“There is nothing sustainable about palm oil that is produced using child labour and forced labour. The abuses discovered within Wilmar’s palm oil operations are not isolated incidents but are systemic and a predictable result of the way Wilmar does business.

“Something is wrong when nine companies turning over a combined revenue of £260 billion in 2015 are unable to do anything about the atrocious treatment of palm oil workers earning a pittance.”

Peter Frankental, Amnesty’s Business and Human Rights Programme Director, said:

“Using mealy-mouthed excuses about ‘traceability’ is a total cop-out from these companies.

“You can be sure that if one these companies’ products were contaminated and had to be taken off the shelves of supermarkets, they would ensure that they could trace the source to specific plantations.  

“The brutal truth is that human rights abuse in the supply chain is not viewed as a quality control issue, but it should be.  Products containing human rights abuses should be viewed as defective.”

Worst forms of child labour exposed

The report documents how children aged from eight to 14 years old in Indonesia are carrying out hazardous work on plantations owned and operated by Wilmar’s subsidiaries and suppliers. They work without safety equipment on plantations where toxic pesticides are used, carrying heavy sacks of palm fruit that can weigh 25kg. Some have dropped out of school to work with their parents for all or most of the day. Others work in the afternoon after attending school, and at the weekends and during holidays.

A 14-year-old boy who harvests and carries palm fruits on a plantation owned by Wilmar told Amnesty that he dropped out of school when we was 12 because his father was unwell and unable to meet his work targets. He said his ten and 12-year-old siblings also work on the plantation after school:

“I have helped my father every day for about two years. I studied until sixth grade in school. I left school to help my father because he couldn’t do the work anymore. He was sick ... I regret leaving school. I would have liked to have gone to school to become smarter. I would like to become a teacher.”

The physically demanding and tiring work can cause physical damage for young children. A ten-year-old boy who also dropped out of school to help his father had worked for a Wilmar supplier since he was eight. He told Amnesty he gets up at 6am to gather and carry away loose palm fruit. He works for six hours every day except Sunday:

“I don’t go to school … I carry the sack with the loose fruit by myself but can only carry it half full. It is difficult to carry it, it is heavy. I do it in the rain as well but it is difficult ... My hands hurt and my body aches.”

All but one of these companies are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, and claim they use “sustainable palm oil” on their websites or product labels. None of the companies Amnesty contacted denied that the abuses were taking place, nor did any provide specific examples of action taken to deal with labour rights abuses in Wilmar’s operations.

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