World Rainforest Movement

Working conditions in oil palm plantations

The following description of work in plantations was written in 1987. Unfortunately, the situation has in general terms not improved much and it is therefore applicable to most of today’s plantations.

“Work on an oil-palm plantation is back-breaking and dangerous. Palm-oil fruits (used in making margarine and cooking oil) grow alongside thorny fronds, 12 to 15 feet above the ground. They are cut down with a long and heavy pole and the skin, head and eyes of the harvester are likely to be cut by the falling fronds. In Malaysian plantations, fruit is cut down mainly by men, while women collect and load the 40-kilogram fruit branches, and thorns can become permanently lodged in the hands, causing constant irritation and infection.

Only rarely is protective clothing issued to the women who spray a mixture of lethal paraquat on the ground to kill weeds. The clothes are too warm for the climate and they don’t even afford much protection: as the sprayers aim for weeds the fine mist drifts and slips inside the clothing. Some people believe the chemicals cause the material to disintegrate.

Wages on plantations are low. Oil-palm plantation workers in Malaysia earn just under the industrial wage – if they are lucky.

Earning the full weekly wage usually involves long hours in the baking sun, struggling to fulfill the company’s quota of palm-oil nuts. The whole family – mothers, grandparents, fathers and children usually work together. Their wages are also dependent on the world market price for palm-oil, and so fluctuate with that price.”

Article based on information from: Barbara Dinham. “Planting Poverty. New Internationalist 172, June 1987