ENVIRONMENT
07/12/2016 10:55 am ET

A Hidden Ingredient In Your Candy Bar: Exploited Labor

A new Rainforest Action Network video uncovers palm oil's high human cost.

What’s in that candy bar you’re munching on or the shampoo lathered in your hair? Along with the sugar and the chemicals, there may be a hidden ingredient you didn’t bargain for: exploited workers.

The Rainforest Action Network released a video Tuesday highlighting the human cost of palm oil, the ubiquitous commodity found in everything from ice cream to detergent. The video describes how the palm oil industry exploits its labor force, exposing workers to hazardous chemicals without adequate protection and turning a blind eye to the use of child labor on plantations, among other abuses.

RAN says the animated clip tells the real stories of three palm oil workers: Manik, who was trafficked into work on a Malaysian palm oil plantation; Sutantri, a young mother who was exposed without proper equipment to toxic chemicals; and Adi, a father who brings his children to work to help him meet his unrealistically high daily quotas.

“While the stories of Manik, Sutantri and Adi are personal accounts, the conditions they face are common among millions of workers in the palm oil industry,” RAN said in a statement. 

The video comes on the heels of a damning report the group released in June about troubling labor practices on palm oil plantations in Indonesia. The report, a collaboration between RAN, the Indonesian labor organization OPPUK and the human rights advocacy group International Labor Rights Forum, detailed alleged labor abuses on two Sumatran palm oil plantations owned by Indofood, Indonesia’s largest food company and a joint venture partner of food giant PepsiCo

“For far too long, brands that use palm oil in their products have known of pervasive and severe labor abuses rife in the industry and have chosen to bury their heads in the sand,” Robin Averbeck, a RAN senior campaigner, said this week. “But the days of inaction are over: The dirty secret that cheap palm oil comes on the backs of exploited workers can no longer be hidden from consumers.”

PepsiCo did not respond to a request for comment on the new RAN video, but in a statement to Thomson Reuters Foundation after the June report said it had contacted Indofood about the allegations.

“We take any alleged violation of labor and human rights policies seriously,” the company said.

Averbeck said she hopes public pressure will help move the needle on this critical issue.

PepsiCo “has so far failed to go on the public record to state how the company will address the labor abuses uncovered on Indofood’s plantations,” she said in an email Tuesday.

 “[Last month’s report] has provoked conversation amongst the public and industry about how labor abuses in the palm oil industry get addressed,” she added, “but real, meaningful actions by PepsiCo and industry actors remain to be seen.”

Palm oil is currently used in half of all consumer goods. Demand for the commodity, which has also been linked to widespread deforestation, climate change and other environmental impacts, is estimated to more than double by 2030 and triple by 2050

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