World Rainforest Movement

Indonesia: From oil palm plantations, with repression…

Extensive cultivation of oil palm and the resulting oil extraction have always been linked to repression. Plantation cultivation was originally established by colonial regimes. The rapid expansion of plantations in Asia following the Second World War was encouraged in connection with forest clearing and was used as a weapon in combating Malay rebels.

The growth of plantations has not been accompanied by increased rights for palm-oil workers. The job continues to be hard and dangerous. Production techniques have hardly changed over the past 150 years. The wooden hook used to harvest the fruit has been replaced in some plantations by a sharper metal alloy hook. And now abundant amounts of toxic herbicides are applied by unprotected workers spraying from leaking backpack containers. Accidents are common and life expectancy is short. Unions are very often brutally repressed.

To dismantle a newly-formed trade union, Musim Mas – the world’s largest palm oil refinery, based in Sumatra, Indonesia – fired over 1,000 trade union members in retaliation for a strike. The company evicted workers from their homes and their children from their schools and also arranged for the arrest and prosecution of 6 union leaders. These six young men are presently serving prison terms ranging from 14 months to 2 years for the “crime” of attempting to exercise their collective rights as workers.

The International Union of Food workers (IUF) had been consolidating world trade union support for a considerable group of these workers who had been resisting the company’s efforts to make them hand in written resignation of their rights and their trade union membership by accepting compensation for their dismissal. This phase of the struggle came to an end when on 7 June the trade union reported that some 200 workers – who had been resisting – accepted financial compensation for the loss of their jobs. In exchange they were pressured to drop all legal claims against the company: meaning that the collective dismissals cannot be contested through an appeals process. Compensation amounts to some 123 dollars per worker, the equivalent of 6 weeks wages. The six prisoners were also obliged to renounce their right to appeal against their absurd criminal convictions which have been denounced by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations for criminalizing trade union activities. Hunger is a powerful weapon in the hands of a strong and ruthless corporation.

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

The Government, under accusations at 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.”

The situation in Indonesia can be summed up in one sentence: one thousand workers were fired from their jobs and evicted from their homes, a union was dismantled and 6 union workers are in prison, but compliance with national law was achieved by paying out 123 dollars and extracting a “peace agreement” from the prisoners, in which they renounce their rights.

IUF affiliates around the world responded to our appeals with messages to the company and the government and generous financial support (now going to assist the families of the imprisoned trade unionists). The fact that our campaign is beginning to gain ground is shown by the company’s newfound willingness to meet with an organization that they had previously refused to recognize and tried to destroy. In a number of key companies, unions linked to the food processing industry called on their managements to examine their palm oil sources and in particular, their relations with Musim Mas. In one case IUF intervention succeeded in bringing one transnational retailer to temporarily suspend its use of Musim Mas as a producer of its brand products. The FNV in the Netherlands exhorted the Government to cease financial support to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the industry’s “socially responsible” public relations mechanism, which includes “multiple interested parties,” among them Musim Mass as an Executive Board member, together with the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Oxfam. Public scrutiny of social conditions underlying palm oil production continues and will not be easily suppressed.

The campaign was working and lessons learnt should not be forgotten, for palm oil continues to grow as a sector built on brutal exploitation. Musim Mas is hardly unique among palm oil producers in its eagerness to crush rights in the search for profits. The use of palm oil as a biofuel means that its price is now linked to the rising cost of fossil fuels, inciting even more greed. It is being encouraged as an alternative to banana-trees in Latin America and promoted as a healthy alternative (which it is not) to trans-fats in processed foods. The plantation areas are wildly expanding, posing a threat to the environment and to workers.

IUF no longer has an industrial dispute with Musim Mas. However, an even greater problem still exists with the company and with the lawlessness and barbarism of the sector as a whole. The World Bank, through its private sector funding agency, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), is increasing its support to expand oil palm cultivation. The RSPO, through its privileged relationship with the World Bank provides it with a “sustainable” cover to fund the kind of social destruction that Musim Mas inflicted on those who produce its profits.

Trade 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 oil palm workers should look closer at how NGOs risk – even in good faith – fronting for companies such as Musim Mas. WWF and Oxfam, while playing their roles on the RSPO Executive Board, need to make a careful analysis of their own positions relating to palm oil workers’ rights. The Dutch unions are right: government support for the RSPO and the NGO palm oil activities, while taking us further from urgently required solutions, is a scandal that must be stopped. The RSPO should also be challenged and asked to explain Syngenta’s participation in the Roundtable. Syngenta manufactures paraquat, the most toxic herbicide on the planet. Paraquat is responsible for the death of tens of thousands of rural workers every year and is liberally applied on oil palm plantations. The Musim Mas union endeavoured to negotiate a 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.

Public relations will not bring sustainability to an industry based on the suppression of human rights. The only alternative is organization and binding and enforceable instruments to ensure rights are respected. Brutality and denial of rights underpin the palm oil chain. The case for organizing workers in this sector is self-evident. The IUF is committed to ensuring that organization.

By IUF, e-mail:,

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