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Free the Musim Mas 6! - Call for Global Solidarity

Posted to the IUF website 16-Feb-2006

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The 5 trade unionists on trial in the Bangkinang State Court (Riau Province, Sumatra, Indonesia) on charges stemming from a strike and demonstration last year at the PT Musim Mas palm oil plantation and refinery in Palalawan were found guilty and sentenced by the court on Friday, February 3. SP KAHUTINDO PT Musim Mas Union Chairperson Robin Kimbi and KAHUTINDO Riau Province Regional Secretary Masry Sebayang were sentenced to 2 years' imprisonment. Union leaders Suyahman, Safrudin, and Akhen Pane each received one year and two months. Sruhas Towo, the sixth union leader arrested later in connection with the strike and demonstration, was convicted on similar charges and sentenced to 14 months on March 17.

The criminal conviction of the 6 union leaders climaxes a series of increasingly brutal violations of fundamental rights by PT Musim Mas (for full background click here). Despite the fact that KAHUTINDO PT Musim Mas, a legally registered trade union, represents 1,183 workers out of a total workforce of 2,000, the company systematically refused to recognize the union or negotiate with KAHUTINDO the implementation of the minimum legal standards for plantation workers required under Indonesian law. Instead, the company's response was to dismiss trade union officers, sack at a stroke 701 union members, refuse to renew the contracts of an additional 300 unionized contract workers, forcibly evict 700 workers and their families from their plantation housing and expel their children from school. In order to destroy the union, the company finally orchestrated the arrest and conviction of the key union officers, who were arrested in the presence of a company manager after being invited by the local police to enter the refinery office on the pretext of initiating negotiations.

The prosecution argued that the six union leaders “and 1000 other workers” pushed down the gate, which in turn caused minor injuries to two persons. At no point in his submissions did the prosecutor allege that it was the actions of the five union leaders, and their actions alone, led to the gate being de-railed and pushed over. Rather than arrest and prosecute all 1000 workers for their actions in pushing the fence over, the police and the Public Prosecutor held the six union leaders individually responsible. They were charged and sentenced for their union activity and their role as union leaders. The Musim Mas 6 are prisoners of conscience.

Mass protest messages are urgently needed as part of a global campaign.

To send a message to the government of Indonesia demanding the immediate and unconditional release of the Musim Mas 6, click here.

Your message will be automatically copied to the union, to the company, and to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), of which Musim Mas is a prominent member.

The Palm Oil Chain

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil which is extracted from the tropical oil palm nuts which grow in a narrow band on either side of the equator. Oil palm's superior yield of edible oil per hectare has fueled the rapid expansion of the area under cultivation in Indonesia. Indonesia and Malaysia are the two countries dominating global production.

Widely used as a cooking oil, refined palm oil is also a ubiquitous ingredient in the global production of processed foods, soap/detergents and personal care products. It is also widely used in the manufacture of metals, plastics, rubber, textiles, paints, paper and electronics components. Crude palm oil is refined, bleached and deodorized to produce, among other products, the industrial frying oils on which the snack food industry depends and which is a common ingredient in margerine, shortening, chocolate, confectionery, ice cream, and condensed milk as well as soaps and detergents. This oil is further processed to yield palm olein and palm stearin and the specialized oleochemicals which are used throughout the processed food chain. Palm oil products are a common ingredient in compound animal feeds, and are now finding their way into biofuels. It would be difficult to locate a supermarket shelf whose merchandise contains no palm oil.

Global use of palm oil has increased by some 75% over the past decade and continues to rise, making it the second most widely used edible oil after soy oil. The European Union, where palm oil use has nearly doubled over the last decade, accounts for some 13% of global palm oil usage, the largest by far of any of the developed countries or regions. The Netherlands is the largest market for Indonesian palm oil, with Rotterdam the largest port for delivery and storage. Much of the palm oil used in the EU is processed for export. North America is expected to become a greater user of palm oil, which is now being promoted as an alternative to the hydrogenated vegetable oils high in the transfats processed food manufacturers are under pressure to reduce.

Indonesia and Malaysia together account for close to 90% of global palm oil exports. Of the two countries, Indonesia has become the more dynamic producer over the past decade. Musim Mas alone produces 20% of Indonesia's crude and refined palm oil exports (the company is also the country's largest producer of palm oil for cooking). Its palm oil refinery and oleochemical plant in Medan is the world's largest, and is currently undergoing an ambitious expansion program. From Medan, tankers transport the oil to a global network of traders and processors in Asia and Europe, who in turn process and distribute it further, by land and water, to the companies who make and market the enormous range of manufactured goods which depend on the oil. Some Indonesian palm oil exported to Malaysia is mixed with Malaysian palm oil and marketed as a Malaysian product, clouding the supply chain. Most companies purchase from the giant traders/processors like Cargill and ADM. Some leading European food companies - including Unilever, Henkel and Migros in Switzerland -procure palm oil directly from Indonesian producers. The leading refining and/or oil packing companies in the EU are ADM, Bunge, Cargill and Unilever.

Among the important global purchasers and users of palm oil are Aarhus United (UK, owned by Aarhus Denmark), BIOX (Netherlands), Cadbury Schweppes (UK), Cargill BV(Netherlands, part of the Cargill group), Cloetta Fazer (Sweden), CSM (Netherlands),
Cognis (Germany), Danisco (Denmark), Ferrero (Italy), Fuji Oil Group (Belgium), Goodman Fielder (Australia), Karlshamns (Sweden), KOG Edible Oils BV (Netherlands, part of the Kuok group), Lipidos Santiga (Spain), Matthews Foods (UK), Mitsubishi (Japan), Nutriswiss (Switzerland), Walter Rau (Germany), Safic-Alcan (France), Santa Maria (Sweden), Spychiger Oil Trading Ltd. (Switzerland) and Unilever (Netherlands/UK).

All of these companies - along with retailers Asda (UK), Boots (UK), the Body Shop (UK) Coop (Switzerland), Co-operative Group (UK) and Migros (Switzerland) are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

Marketing "Sustainable Palm Oil": the RSPO

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 as a "multi-stakeholder" organization "with a governance structure that ensures fair representation of all stakeholders throughout the entire supply chain." Its objective is "to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil through co-operation within the supply chain and open dialogue with its stakeholders." Its seat is in Switzerland, with a secretariat in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The President of the RSPO is Jan Kees Vis of Unilever. In addition to palm oil producers and the processors, traders, manufacturers and retailers listed above, RSPO members include the environmental group WWF (Indonesia, Malaysia, Switzerland) and Oxfam UK and Netherlands.

The Third Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil met in Singapore on November 22-23, 2005. According to RSPO Secretary-General Andrew NG, "The public presentation of the Principles & Criteria for Sustainable Palm Oil Production (or P&C), and subsequent adoption of the P&C by RSPO’s membership at the 2nd (annual) General Assembly of members has meant that the world now has a credible and practical set of tools for measuring against sustainability, meeting stakeholder demands, and, demonstrating sustainability within the palm oil industry." Less than a day later, these "credible and practical" tools were put to the test, and failed.

On November 24, the RSPO Executive Board met. The first item on the agenda was how to respond to "allegations" expressed by the IFBWW (now BWI, the global trade union federation for construction, woodworking and forestry workers) concerning gross human rights violations at PT Musim Mas in Pelalawan.

Three Musim Mas representatives were present at the Board meeting. Armed with a ludicrous PowerPoint presentation which systematically falsified the history of the conflict and insulted and ridiculed the plantation and refinery workers, their union and their international supporters, Musim Mas even claimed that local police had arrested the workers' leaders on their own initiative, despite the fact that the union officers were entrapped at a putative "negotiating" meeting at the company office where the police were waiting. (For a systematic refutation of the Musim Mas presentation in pdf format, in English, click here). They effortlessly convinced the RSPO Board that flagrant violations of trade union rights, including the dismissal of trade union officers, the mass dismissal of 701 union members, the use of violence against strikers and the arrest of six trade union officers - 5 of whom have now been sentenced to prison terms of 14 months to 2 years for attempting to exercise their mandate as union representatives, with the sixth facing similar charges - were either unworthy of serious investigation or fell comfortably within the Roundtable's remit of promoting "socially beneficial" palm oil production methods. None of the corporate representatives or the NGOs present questioned the accuracy of the company's presentation, or even requested more information. In response to a question about the reasons prompting the workers to strike, Musim Mas replied that union leaders had promised the workers large sums of money. The representative of an Indonesian NGO opined that the company had "acted according to the law" although it was lacking sufficient information on the dispute. Ian MacIntosh of Aarhus United warned against "overactive involvement" while counseling "compassion for all sides." The discussion (documented on the RSPO web site) concluded that WWF should respond to the IFBWW that both parties were proceeding through appropriate legal channels. The board thereupon moved on to the next item on the agenda.

Even by the generally hollow standards of corporate social responsibility exercises, the Roundtable is particularly lacking in substance. Musim Mas Group submitted its 2 page "RSPO Annual Communication of Progress" on 30 September 2005 and left blank the question "whether any social or environmental problems were encountered during the 12-month period. " The RSPO does not require its members to report on the mass sacking, persecution and imprisonment of employees when they organize a trade union, though these practices should, at the very least, have raised serious questions about the company's compliance with the RSPO's own "Criteria and Principles" for sustainable palm oil.

The palm oil chain rests on the backs of plantation workers like those at PT Musim Mas in Pelalawan, whose union officers are now in jail. The RSPO is the "responsible", "sustainable", "socially beneficial" cover for the corporate brutality which underpins the chain.