Child labor in palm oil industry tied to Girl Scout cookies

Child labor has long stained the $65 billion global palm oil industry. Though often minimized as kids simply helping their families, it has been identified as a problem by human rights groups, the United Nations and the U.S. government.

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A child helps her parents work on a palm oil plantation in Sabah, Malaysia, Monday, Dec. 10, 2018.

A child helps her parents work on a palm oil plantation in Sabah, Malaysia, in 2018. With little or no access to daycare, some young children in Indonesia and Malaysia follow their parents to the fields, where they are exposed to toxic pesticides and fertilizers.

Binsar Bakkara/Associated Press

They are two young girls from two very different worlds, linked by a global industry that exploits an army of children.

Olivia Chaffin, a Girl Scout in Jonesborough, Tennessee, was a top cookie seller in her troop when she first heard rainforests were being destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations. On one of those plantations a continent away, 10-year-old Ima helped harvest the fruit that makes its way into a dizzying array of products sold by leading Western food and cosmetics brands.

Ima is among the estimated tens of thousands of children working alongside their parents in Indonesia and Malaysia, which supply 85% of palm oil — the world’s most consumed vegetable oil.

An Associated Press investigation found most earn little or nothing and are routinely exposed to toxic chemicals and other dangerous conditions. Some never go to school or learn to read and write. Others are smuggled across borders and left vulnerable to trafficking or sexual abuse. Many live in limbo with no citizenship and fear being swept up in police raids and thrown into detention.

The AP used U.S. Customs records and the most recently published data from producers, traders and buyers to trace the fruits of their labor from the processing mills where palm kernels were crushed to the supply chains of many popular kids’ cereals, candies and ice creams sold by Nestle, Unilever, Kellogg’s, PepsiCo and many other leading food companies, including Ferrero – one of the two makers of Girl Scout cookies.

Olivia, who earned a badge for selling more than 600 boxes of cookies, had spotted palm oil as an ingredient on the back of one of her packages when she was 11 but was relieved to see a green tree logo next to the words “certified sustainable.” She assumed that meant her Thin Mints and Tagalongs weren’t harming rainforests, orangutans or those harvesting the orange-red palm fruit.

But later, Olivia saw the word “mixed” on the label. It meant exactly what she feared: Sustainable palm oil had been blended with oil from unsustainable sources. To her, that meant the cookies she was peddling were tainted.

In Indonesia, Ima led her class in math and dreamed of becoming a doctor. Then one day her father made her quit school to help him meet company targets on the palm oil plantation where she was born. Instead of attending fourth grade, she squatted in the heat, snatching up loose kernels, knowing if she missed even one, her family’s pay would be cut.

She sometimes worked 12 hours a day, wearing only flip flops and no gloves, crying when the fruit’s razor-sharp spikes bloodied her hands or when scorpions stung her fingers. The loads she carried, sometimes so heavy she lost her footing, went to one of the mills feeding into the supply chain of Olivia’s cookies.

“I am dreaming one day I can go back to school,” she told the AP, tears rolling down her cheeks.

Ima, a girl who works informally to help her parents in a palm oil plantation, photographed in Sumatra, Indonesia, Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018.

Ima works informally to help her parents in a palm oil plantation in Indonesia. She was just 10 when she joined the throngs of children working on vast plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, which supply 85% of the world’s palm oil.

Binsar Bakkara/Associated Press

Child labor has long been a dark stain on the $65 billion global palm oil industry. Though often denied or minimized as kids simply helping their families on weekends or after school, it has been identified as a problem by human rights groups, the United Nations and the U.S. government.

Some children push wheelbarrows heaped with fruit two or three times their weight. Some weed and prune the trees barefoot; teen boys may harvest bunches large enough to crush them, slicing the fruit from branches with sickle blades attached to long poles.

A day’s pay for some families won’t even buy a $5 box of Thin Mints.

“For 100 years, families have been stuck in a cycle of poverty, and they know nothing else than work on a palm oil plantation,” said Kartika Manurung, who has published reports detailing labor issues on Indonesian plantations. “When I … ask the kids what they want to be when they grow up, some of the girls say, ‘I want to be the wife of a palm oil worker.’”

The AP’s investigation into child labor is part of a broader in-depth look at the industry that also exposed rape, forced labor, trafficking and slavery.

For this story, AP reporters crisscrossed Malaysia and Indonesia, speaking to more than 130 current and former workers – some two dozen of them child laborers – at nearly 25 companies. Their locations are not being disclosed and only partial names or nicknames are being used due to fears of retribution.

The AP found children working on plantations and corroborated accounts of abuse, whenever possible, by reviewing police reports and legal documents. Reporters also interviewed more than 100 activists, teachers, union leaders, government officials, researchers, lawyers and clergy, including some who helped victims of trafficking or sexual assault.

Indonesian government officials said they do not know how many children work in the country’s palm oil industry, either full or part time. But the U.N.’s International Labor Organization has estimated 1.5 million children between 10 and 17 years old labor in its agricultural sector. Palm oil is one of the largest crops, employing some 16 million people.

A child collects palm kernels from the ground at a palm oil plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017.

A child collects palm kernels from the ground at a palm oil plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia, in 2017. Indonesia is the world’s largest palm oil producer.

Binsar Bakkara/Associated Press

In much smaller neighboring Malaysia, a newly released government report estimated more than 33,000 children work in the industry there, many under hazardous conditions – with nearly half of them between the ages of 5 and 11.

Many producers, Western buyers and banks belong to the 4,000-member Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a global association that provides a green stamp of approval to those committed to supplying, sourcing, financing or using palm oil that’s been certified as ethically sourced.

The RSPO has a system in place to address grievances, including labor abuse allegations. But of the nearly 100 complaints listed on its case tracker for the two Southeast Asian countries in the last decade, only a handful have mentioned children.

“It is an issue, and we know it’s an issue,” said Dan Strechay, the RSPO’s global outreach and engagement director, adding the association has started working with UNICEF and others to educate members about what constitutes child labor.

Palm oil is contained in roughly half the products on supermarket shelves and in almost three out of every four cosmetic brands, though that can be hard to discern since it appears on labels under more than 200 different names.

A child carries palm kernels collected from the ground at a palm oil plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017.

A child carries palm kernels collected from the ground at a palm oil plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia, in 2017.

Binsar Bakkara/Associated Press

Many companies issue assurances they are committed to “sustainable” sourcing. But supply chains often are murky – especially in the palm oil industry – and developing countries that produce commodities in large volumes cheaply often do so by disregarding the environment and minimizing labor costs.

Most people take words like “organic,” “fair trade” and “sustainable” at face value. But not Olivia. She became increasingly worried about palm oil, rifling through the kitchen cupboards in her family’s century-old farmhouse, checking the ingredients on cans and wrappers.

Now 14, Olivia has written to the head of Girl Scouts of the USA, demanding answers about how the palm oil in Girls Scout cookies is sourced. She’s started an online petition to get it removed. And she and some other members of Troop 543 have stopped selling them.

The Girl Scouts had not responded to repeated requests for comment before the Associated Press published their findings online Tuesday.

But on Wednesday, in a tweet, the organization declared: “Child labor has no place in Girl Scout Cookie production,” the Girl Scouts tweeted. “Our investment in the development of our world’s youth must not be facilitated by the under-development of some.”

The Girl Scouts also referred to the RSPO: “If certain suppliers are not following ethical practices, we expect our bakers and RSPO to take action quickly to rectify those exceptions.”

The two bakeries and their parent corporations have had no comment on the findings.

“I thought Girl Scouts was supposed to be about making the world a better place,” Olivia said. “But this isn’t at all making the world better.”

Olivia Chaffin, 14, stands for a portrait with her Girl Scout sash in Jonesborough, Tenn., on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020.

Olivia Chaffin, 14, who lives in Jonesborough, Tenn., is asking Girl Scouts across the country to band with her and stop selling cookies. “The cookies deceive a lot of people,” Olivia said. “They think it’s sustainable, but it isn’t.”

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

From Pop-Tarts to infant formula to gum, palm oil is there

Many kids are introduced to palm oil soon after they’re born — it’s a primary fat in infant formula. Later, it’s present in many of their favorite foods: Pop-Tarts and Cap’n Crunch, Oreos and Kit Kats, as well as ice cream, doughnuts and even bubble gum.

“Let them enjoy it,” said Abang, a skinny 14-year-old who dropped out of the fifth grade to help his father on an Indonesian plantation and has never tasted ice cream. He has accepted his own fate but still dreams of a better future for his little brother.

“Let me work, just me, helping my father,” Abang said. “I want my brother to go back to school. … I don’t want him in the same difficult situation like me.”

Though many consumers aren’t familiar with it, palm oil became ubiquitous nearly two decades ago after warnings about health risks associated with trans fats. Almost overnight, food manufacturers began shifting to the highly versatile and cheap oil.

Indonesia is the world’s largest palm oil producer and, with a population of 270 million, there is no shortage of strong backs. Many laborers migrate from the poorest corners of the country, often bringing their wives and children as helpers to meet impossibly high daily quotas.

Others have lived on the same plantations for generations, creating a built-in workforce – when one harvester retires or dies, another in the family takes his place to hold onto company-subsidized housing — often a dilapidated shack with no running water and sometimes only limited electricity.

It’s a cycle 15-year-old Jo was trying to break. Though he had to help his family in the fields each day, his parents let him keep $6 a month to pay for morning classes.

“I am determined to finish high school to find a job outside the plantation,” said Jo, who toiled alongside his mother, father and grandfather. “My parents are very poor. Why should I follow my parents?”

But for many migrant children in neighboring Malaysia — which relies almost entirely on foreign workers to fill constant labor shortages — the hurdles to a brighter life seem insurmountable.

Male harvesters technically are not allowed to bring their families to plantations on Borneo island, which is shared by both countries. So children often follow, sometimes traveling alone on illicit smugglers’ routes.

A child helps her parents work on a palm oil plantation in Sabah, Malaysia, Monday, Dec. 10, 2018.

A child helps her parents work on a palm oil plantation in Sabah, Malaysia. Many children gather loose kernels and clear brush from the trees with machetes.

Binsar Bakkara/Associated Press

The perilous border crossings to the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak can take place at night, either on foot across winding jungle paths or in packed speed boats racing without lights, sometimes colliding or capsizing in the dark.

An official estimate says 80,000 children of illegal migrants, mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines, are living in Sabah alone, but some rights groups say the true number could be nearly double that. Without birth certificates and with no path to citizenship, they are essentially stateless – denied access to even the most basic rights and at high risk of exploitation.

Migrant workers without documents are often treated “inhumanely” in Malaysia, said Soes Hindharno, an official from Indonesia’s Manpower Ministry. He said he had not received any complaints about child labor occurring in his own country, but an official from the ministry that oversees women and children’s issues acknowledged it was an area of growing concern in Indonesia.

Malaysia’s Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but Nageeb Wahab, head of the Malaysian Palm Oil Association, a government-supported umbrella group, called allegations of child labor very serious and urged that complaints be reported to authorities.

Children of migrant parents fear being separated from their families. They try to remain invisible to avoid attracting the ever-watchful eyes of police, with some keeping backpacks with supplies ready in case they need to flee their houses and sleep in the jungle to avoid raids.

Many never leave their guarded plantations, some so remote that workers must climb hills to search for a phone signal. And for those who dare to go out, trouble can come quickly.

Alex was 12 when he began working 10 hours a day on a small plantation with his father, hoisting fruits so heavy his aching muscles kept him awake at night. One day, he decided to sneak off to visit his favorite aunt in a nearby village. With no passport, Alex said authorities quickly found him and carted him off to a crowded immigration detention center where he was held for a month.

“There were hundreds of other people there, some my age, and also younger children, mostly with their mothers,” he said. “I was very afraid and kept thinking about how worried my mother and father must be. It made it hard to even eat or drink.”

But the biggest obstacles faced by child workers in the two countries are lack of access to adequate, affordable education and medical care.

A child carries palm kernels collected from the ground across a creek at a palm oil plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017.

A child carries palm kernels collected from the ground across a creek at a palm oil plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia.

Binsar Bakkara/Associated Press

Some companies in Indonesia provide rudimentary elementary schooling on plantations, but children who want to continue their studies may find they have to travel too far on poor roads or that they can’t afford it. In Malaysia, the problem is even bigger: Without legal documents, tens of thousands of kids are not allowed to attend government schools.

“Why aren’t companies playing a role in setting up schools in collaboration with the government?” asked Glorene Das, executive director of Tenaganita, a Malaysian nonprofit group concentrating on migrant issues for more than two decades. “Why are they encouraging the children to work instead?”

Medical care also is woeful, with experts saying poor nutrition and daily exposure to toxic chemicals harm child laborers’ health and development. Many Indonesian plantations have their own basic clinics, but some are for full-time workers only.

Many young palm oil workers also have little understanding about reproductive health. Girls working on remote plantations are vulnerable to sexual abuse. Teen pregnancies and marriages are common.

Ana was just 13 when she arrived in Malaysia, quickly learning, as she put it, that “anything can happen to the female workers there.” She said she was raped and forced to marry her attacker, but she eventually managed to break free after years of abuse and return home to start a new life. Now a mother with kids of her own, she abruptly left Indonesia last year again to look for work in Malaysia.

Many children do not have the option to ever leave. They are born on plantations, work there and sometimes die there. Overgrown headstones and crosses marking graves in crude cemeteries are found on some plantations near the towering palm trees.

Others, like 48-year-old Anna’s husband, are buried in community graveyards along the Indonesian and Malaysian border. A month after the palm oil harvester’s death, Anna lovingly tended his plot at the Christian site in Sabah, crammed with the bodies of hundreds of other migrants.

She said her son, whose own newborn baby was buried in the adjacent grave, had inherited his father’s job. He is the family’s main breadwinner now.

The cycle continues.

Sustainability hard to monitor

Olivia is not the first Girl Scout to raise questions about palm oil.

More than a decade ago, two girls in a Michigan troop stopped selling S’mores and other seasonal favorites because they worried palm oil’s expansion in Indonesia and Malaysia was destroying rainforests and killing endangered animals like orangutans.

After several years, the Girl Scouts of the USA became an affiliate member of the RSPO and agreed to use sustainable palm oil, adding the green tree logo to the roughly 200 million boxes of cookies sold each year, which bring in nearly $800 million.

The RSPO tries to factor in the interests of a wide array of groups, including environmental organizations, industry leaders and banks. Its mission was not to flip a switch overnight but to encourage the mammoth palm oil industry to evolve after years of breakneck growth and little outside oversight.

Still, many food and cosmetic companies facing increased pressure from conscientious consumers see the RSPO stamp of approval as the go-to answer when questions are raised about their commitments to sustainability.

Monitoring the millions of workers in an area roughly the size of New Zealand, however, is next to impossible.

Some women and children on remote, sprawling plantations told the AP and labor rights groups they are ordered to hide or stay home when sustainability auditors visit. They said only the optimal, easiest-to-reach parts of a plantation are typically showcased, with poor living and working conditions hidden from outside eyes.

Girl Scout Olivia Chaffin earned merit badges for selling Girl Scout Cookies. But she stopped selling them over concerns that the palm oil in some varieties was produced using child labor.

Girl Scout Olivia Chaffin earned merit badges for selling Girl Scout Cookies. But she stopped selling them over concerns that the palm oil in some varieties was produced using child labor.

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

“The RSPO promises sustainable palm oil. But it doesn’t mean that that palm oil is free of child labor or other abuses,” said Robin Averbeck of the Rainforest Action Network, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that has found pervasive problems on plantations, including those certified as sustainable. “It has simply become a tool for greenwashing.”

When contacted by the AP, companies reaffirmed their support of human rights for all workers, with some noting they rely on their suppliers to meet industry standards and abide by local laws. If evidence of wrongdoing is found, some said they would immediately cut ties with producers.

“We aim to prevent and address the issue of child labor wherever it occurs in our supply chain,” said Nestle, maker of KitKat candy bars. Unilever – the world’s biggest ice-cream maker, including Magnum – noted its suppliers “must not, under any circumstance, employ individuals under the age of 15 or under the local legal minimum age for work or mandatory schooling.”

There was no response from Mondelez, which owns Oreo cookies, or Cap’n Crunch parent company PepsiCo.

Palm oil key to economy in Indonesia, Malaysia

Consumers have their own challenges in trying to buy responsibly.

Take Girls Scout cookies, for instance, which are made by two different U.S. bakers.

Boxes from both are stamped with green palm logos. The maker of Olivia’s cookies, Little Brownie Bakers in Kentucky, has the word “mixed” beside the tree, meaning as little as 1 percent of the palm oil might be certified sustainable. ABC Bakers in Virginia says “credits,” which means money goes toward promoting sustainable production.

The bakers’ parent companies – Italian confectionary brand Ferrero and Canadian-based Weston Foods – would not comment on child labor but said they were committed to sourcing only certified sustainable palm oil.

Weston Foods, which owns ABC Bakers, would not provide information about its palm oil suppliers, citing proprietary reasons, so the AP could not determine if its supply chain was tainted.

Palm oil is an important part of the two Southeast Asian countries’ economies, and the governments bristle at any criticism, saying the industry plays an important role in alleviating poverty.

They have banned products touted as “palm oil-free” from supermarket shelves and created slogans calling the crop “God’s gift.” And when students at an international school in Malaysia were criticized last year for staging a play questioning the industry’s effect on the environment, school administrators responded with an apology.

Back in Indonesia, Ima could give a very different classroom presentation about palm oil, but she has no chance.

Ima continues to toil full time alongside her family, even though her mother had promised she eventually could resume her studies.

“Sometimes my friends ask me, ‘Why did you drop out? Why are you not at school?’” Ima said, her resentment readily apparent. “‘Because I have to help my father. If you want to replace me and help my father, then I will go to school. How about that?’”

After learning about Ima, Olivia is even more determined to fight on. She sent letters to her customers explaining her reasons for no longer selling Girl Scout cookies, and many responded by donating money to her Southern Appalachian troop to show support.

Now, Olivia is asking Girl Scouts across the country to band with her.

“The cookies deceive a lot of people. They think it’s sustainable, but it isn’t,” she said.

“I’m not just some little girl who can’t do anything about this,” Olivia added. “Children can make change in the world. And we’re going to.”

This story was funded in part by the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at CUNY’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.

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