The Price of Palm Oil

If you look up Wikipedia for general information on palm oil, it explains that it is an edible vegetable oil derived from the reddish pulp of the fruit of the oil palms, primarily the African oil palm. Along with coconut oil, palm oil is one of the few highly saturated vegetable fats and is semisolid at room temperature. It is a common cooking ingredient in the tropical belt of Africa, Southeast Asia and parts of Brazil. Its use in the commercial food industry is widespread because of its lower cost and the high oxidative stability (saturation) of the refined product when used for frying. Palm oil is a commodity in massive demand for its use in a wide range of basic products from ice-cream and chocolate to shampoo and toothpaste.

The use of palm oil in food products has attracted the concern of environmental activist groups as the high oil yield of the trees has encouraged wider cultivation, leading to the clearing of forests in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia to make space for oil-palm monoculture. This has resulted in significant losses to the natural habitat of the orang-utan, of which both species are endangered (one of these, the Sumatran orang-utan, has been listed as critically endangered).

Currently, Amnesty international is conducting a campaign to raise awareness that the reason for its lower cost is that the palm oil industry uses child labour and exploits its workers. Children as young as eight are doing back-breaking work to produce palm oil for household brands that we use everyday. In fact, some of the world’s best known companies, including Nestlé, Colgate-Palmolive and Kelloggs, are using palm oil from Indonesian plantations where child labour is the norm and workers suffer from hard labour and long hours

These big brand producers source palm oil from Wilmar International, one of the largest Indonesian palm oil plantation owners. Most of these companies will tell you that the palm oil they use is ‘sustainable,’ meaning that it is environmentally friendly and that workers are treated fairly. But an investigation by Amnesty International has uncovered some disturbing exploitation of plantation workers including:

  • Children as young as eight are doing hard labour which can cause physical damage. A 10-year-old boy told Amnesty investigators that he works six days a week. He doesn’t go to school and he carries the sack with the loose fruit by himself but can only carry it half full. He reported that he does this also in the rain.
  • Women are forced to work long hours under threat of pay cuts, and are paid below minimum wage – earning as little as $2.50 USD a day in extreme cases.
  • Workers labour for long hours to meet high targets with tasks that are physically demanding, such as cutting fruit from 20-meter-tall palm trees.

The abuse of workers on these plantations is clear – yet these producers are failing to do even basic human rights checks on their supply chain. Something is wrong when six companies turning over a combined revenue of $325 billion in 2015 won’t do something about the abuse of palm oil workers earning a pittance.

The list of companies that Amnesty International names as implicated include:

  • Ben & Jerry’s – in their Chocolate Peppermint Crunch ice cream;
  • Unilever – a Dutch-British transnational consumer goods company co-headquartered in Rotterdam, Netherlands and London, United Kingdom. Its products include food, beverages, cleaning agents and personal care products.
  • Colgate – in its toothpaste;
  • Kelloggs – in their breakfast cereals;
  • Dove – in its soap products
  • Magnum – ice cream;
  • Pantene – in its shampoo;
  • Nestlé – in many of its food products;
  • Head & Shoulders – shampoo;
  • Covergirl Australia – in its cosmetics.

This campaign by Amnesty International is current, so if you want to do something about this issue, go to Amnesty International’s website. It will give you options such as signing petitions, which also can appear of social media such as Facebook and Twitter; sending messages via Facebook or Twitter directly to the companies listed above; or making a donation towards this campaign.

Such exploitation is rife in developing countries because, though the Free Market Economy is touted as the fairest system, with its trickle down economics ideology, the scam is that this is only true in a perfect world where there is total employment. In such a world, say you have 40 people employed in the palm oil industry getting paid $3.00 a day, and 3 companies want to attract workers, they would have to offer more pay or better working conditions to be able to do so. So this means that things continue to improve for workers.

In the real world there is no 100% employment. So in a situation where 20% are fully employed, 30% partially employed, and 50% not employed, and 3 companies want to attract workers, they can offer what they want, as for those unemployed poor wages are better than no wages. So instead of a perfect world where it becomes a race to the top, without 100% employment, in the real world it becomes a race to the bottom.

As a member of ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans) I have a particular interest in this issue as it is a perfect environment for the abuse of slave labour as well. Please join me in supporting this campaign by Amnesty International to stamp out exploitation of children, workers, and the conditions that fuel human trafficking and slave labour.

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About Passionist JPIC Australia

I am a priest with the Passionist Congregation and a part of our Australian Province which includes Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam. I have been ordained since December of 1992. I was born in the Philippines, though am from Spanish decent. I came to Australia in 1972 with my family when I was 11 years old, and we settled in Brisbane. That is where I did the rest of my growing up. On completing high school, I went to Queensland University where I studied for 4 years, completing a B.Sc. with a major in Microbiology. The following year I decided to enter into the Passionist Congregation to study for the priesthood. I trained for 9 years, and have been a priest for 25 years. In my time as a priest I have been Director of the Passionist Family Group Movement in Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland; conducted over 400 Parish Missions all around Australia and New Zealand, but particularly in Victoria and Western Australia; worked in adult faith education, Sacramental preparation for children and parents; Hospital chaplaincy; High school chaplaincy, in-services and retreats. In the year 200 I became engaged in developing young adult retreat teams and training them to carry on our high school retreat programs. I am also chair of our Province’s committee for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC). I am also a member of ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans).
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