Published: 27/04/2006

Extensive cultivation of the oil palm and the extraction for export of the oils it yields has always been linked to repression. Plantation cultivation was originally established by colonial regimes. Rapid plantation growth in Asia following the Second World War was encouraged in connection with forest clearing used as a weapon in combating Malaysian insurgents.

Expanding cultivation has not been linked to expanding rights for palm oil workers. The work remains hard and dangerous. Production techniques have hardly changed over the past 150 years. The wooden hook used to harvest the fruit has been replaced on some plantations by an even sharper alloy hook. And copious amounts of toxic herbicides are now applied by unprotected workers spraying from leaking backpack canisters. Accidents are common; life expectancy is short. Unions are often brutally repressed.

To bust a newly-formed union, Musim Mas − the world’s largest palm oil refiner, based in Sumatra, Indonesia − last year fired over 1,000 union members at a stroke in retaliation for a strike. The company evicted the workers from their homes and their children from their schools, and engineered the arrest and prosecution of six union leaders. These six young men are currently serving prison terms of 14 months to two years for the ‘crime’ of trying to exercise their collective rights as workers.

The IUF had been building global trade union support for a sizeable group of these workers who had been resisting the company’s efforts to have them sign away their rights by accepting compensation for their dismissal. This phase of the struggle came to an end when the union informed us that some 200 workers who had been holding out agreed on June 7 to accept financial compensation for the loss of their jobs. In exchange, they were pressured into dropping all legal claims against the company, meaning that the mass dismissals cannot be challenged through the appeals process. The compensation amounts to some USD 123 per worker − the equivalent of six weeks’ wages. The six prisoners were also compelled to renounce their right to appeal their farcical criminal convictions, which have been denounced by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations for criminalizing trade union activity. Hunger is a powerful weapon in the hands of a ruthless corporation.

The company praised the ‘mutual agreement’ by announcing that ‘This matter was resolved in accordance with Indonesia’s labour laws and in compliance with all regulations in Indonesia. We are committed to proactively engaging our stakeholders both in Indonesia and abroad to promote a sustainable palm oil industry’.

The government, under fire at the United Nations’ ILO for serial violations of international Conventions on trade union rights, praised an agreement which ‘will contribute towards more positive industrial relations in the palm oil industry’.

Here we see the Indonesian situation in a nutshell: A thousand workers were sacked and evicted from their homes, a union was busted and six union leaders are in prison, but compliance with national law was achieved by paying out 123 dollars per worker and extracting from the six prisoners a ‘peace agreement’ in which they renounce their rights.

IUF affiliates around the world responded to our appeals with messages to the company and the government and with generous financial support (which will now go to the families of the imprisoned trade unionists). That our campaign was beginning to bite is shown by the company’s newfound willingness to meet with an organization they had previously refused to recognize and tried to destroy. In a number of key companies, unions in food processing called on their corporate managements to review their palm oil sourcing, and in particular their relations with Musim Mas. IUF intervention in one case succeeded in bringing one transnational retailer to temporarily suspend its use of Musim Mas as a producer of own-label products. The FNV in the Netherlands called on the government to cut off financial support for the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the industry’s ‘multi-stakeholder’, ‘socially responsible’ public relations exercise which includes Musim Mas as an Executive Board member alongside WWF and Oxfam. Public scrutiny of the social conditions underlying palm oil production continues, and won’t be easily suppressed.

The campaign was working, and the lessons learned will not be forgotten, for palm oil remains a booming sector built on brutal exploitation. Musim Mas is hardly unique among palm oil producers in its dedication to crushing rights in the quest for profits. Palm oil’s use as a biofuel means that its price is now linked to the rising cost of carbon fuels, inciting even more greed. It is being encouraged as an alternative to bananas in Latin America, and promoted as a healthy alternative (it is not) to trans fats in processed foods. The area under cultivation is expanding wildly, posing a threat to the environment and to workers.

The IUF no longer has an industrial dispute with Musim Mas. There remains, however, an even larger problem with the company and with the lawlessness and barbarism of the sector as a whole. The World Bank, through its private sector lending arm the IFC, is stepping up its support for expanding cultivation. The RSPO, through its privileged relationship with the World Bank, gives it a ‘sustainable’ cover for financing the kind of social destruction that Musim Mas inflicted on those who produce its profits.

Unions in food processing should continue to question their companies’ sources of palm oil and other inputs derived from indefensible practices. Supporters of justice for palm oil workers should take a closer look at how NGOs risk − even if inadvertently − fronting for companies like Musim Mas. WWF and Oxfam, while they play their roles on the Executive Board of the RSPO, need to look closely at their own positions as they relate to the rights of palm oil workers. The Dutch unions are right: government support for the RSPO and the NGOs’ palm oil activities, which take us further from the solutions which are urgently needed, is a scandal which must be stopped. The RSPO should also be challenged to explain Syngenta’s participation in the Roundtable. Syngenta makes paraquat, the most toxic herbicide on the planet. Paraquat is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of rural workers every year, and is liberally applied on palm oil plantations. The Musim Mas union tried to negotiate safer application of toxic chemicals, and was crushed. The company whose product kills palm oil workers has now applied for membership in the RSPO with full voting rights.

PR exercises won’t bring sustainability to an industry built on the suppression of human rights. Trade union organization and binding, enforceable instruments for ensuring that rights are respected are the only way. Brutality and denial of rights underpin the palm oil chain. The case for organizing palm oil workers is self-evident.
The IUF is committed to ensuring that organization.