Colgate-Palmolive, Kellogg's, Nestlé and Unilever are among nine global food and household companies selling products containing palm oil tarnished by human rights abuses in Indonesia, an Amnesty International investigation has found.
In a report detailing the operations of Indonesian palm oil plantations run by the world's biggest palm oil grower Wilmar International, Amnesty International presented evidence of human rights abuses including women working for US$2.50 a day and children as young as eight working in hazardous conditions.
"Corporate giants like Colgate, Nestlé and Unilever assure consumers that their products use 'sustainable palm oil', but our findings reveal that the palm oil is anything but," said Meghna Abraham, Senior Investigator at Amnesty International.
"Companies are turning a blind eye to exploitation of workers in their supply chain. Despite promising customers that there will be no exploitation in their palm oil supply chains, big brands continue to profit from appalling abuses."
The report, The great palm oil scandal: Labour abuses behind big brand names, followed research and interviews with 120 workers on palm plantations owned by two Wilmar subsidiaries and three suppliers in Indonesia.
The Singapore-based Wilmar is the world's largest processor and merchandiser of palm and palm kernel oils, controlling more than 43 per cent of the global palm oil trade.
Palm oil and palm-based ingredients are found in around half of all common consumer products, including cooking oil, chocolate, margarine, lipsticks and biofuels for cars and power plants.
A 2013 report commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund and the Australian Food and Grocery Council estimated Australians consumed around six kilograms of palm oil a year, on average.
The low cost and versatility of palm oil has made it an attractive ingredient across industries, however its production has been continually blamed for habitat loss for endangered species, pollution, social conflicts and human rights abuses.
The social and environmental impacts of palm oil prompted the formation of the international Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in 2004, set up to advance the production, procurement, finance and use of sustainable palm oil products.
All but one of the companies highlighted in the report are members of the Roundtable and claim to use "sustainable palm oil" on their websites or product labels.
"This report clearly shows that companies have used the Roundtable as a shield to deflect greater scrutiny," said Seema Joshi, Head of Business and Human Rights.
"Our investigation uncovered that these companies have strong policies on paper but none could demonstrate that they had identified obvious risks of abuses in Wilmar's supply chain."
During interviews with workers on Wilmar-linked plantations, Amnesty International gathered evidence of workers suffering severe injuries from paraquat - a toxic chemical banned in the EU and by Wilmar itself, women paid below minimum wage in insecure employment, and workers, including children, forced to meet unreasonable targets.
Asked by Amnesty International to confirm whether palm oil in a list of their consumer products came from Wilmar's Indonesian operations, only Kellogg's and Reckitt Benckiser would confirm.
Colgate and Nestlé acknowledged that they receive palm oil from Wilmar refineries in Indonesia, which were linked to plantations investigated for the report.
Responding to the investigation, Wilmar described the issues raised as "systemic challenges shared by the industry," adding that its 'No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation policy' highlighted its commitment to workers' rights.
"We expect our suppliers to comply with our policy, and our own operations are no exception. In August 2016, we have been made aware of labour issues in the same plantations cited [by Amnesty] and we immediately initiated an internal review process which is still ongoing."
Amnesty International revealed that not one of the companies contacted denied that the abuses were taking place, nor did any provide examples of action taken to deal with labour rights abuses in Wilmar's operations.
In a statement to Fairfax Media, Wilmar said it welcomed the report, as it helped highlight labour issues within the wider palm oil industry.
"Many of these highlighted issues need a bigger platform than sustainable certification to resolve; they require collaborations between governments, companies, and civil society organisations," said Perpetua George, assistant general manager for Wilmar Group Sustainability.
"We have reached out to Amnesty International to work more collaboratively with the industry and we hope that this can be a reality."
Child labour laws in Indonesia prohibit anyone from employing anyone under the age of 18 for work that is harmful to health and safety, while children between the ages of 13 and 15 are permitted to do "light" work.
Indonesia's director for supervision work ethics of women and children Laurent Sinaga said that the government was not aware of the most recent allegations by Amnesty International.
"There was a complaint addressed to us in 2014 saying there [was] child labour in a plantation...We went there and found they were children of the labourers so it's not child labour," she said.
He said parents on plantations often brought their children as there was no childcare at home, adding that the government conducted "regular monitoring" of companies to check for child labour every few months.
Amnesty International will campaign for the relevant companies to reveal the origin of palm oil in products like ice-cream, toothpaste, cosmetics and shampoo, in follow up to the report.
Company statements to Fairfax Media
"We are committed to respecting human rights in accordance with international standards like the International Labour Organisation, UN Guiding Principles, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ... Kellogg is committed to working with our global palm oil suppliers to source fully traceable palm oil ... If we find, or are made aware of, any supply chain violations of our global palm oil principles, we work with the supplier to understand corrective actions ... [or] take action to remove them from our supply chain."
Colgate-Palmolive said it would hold Wilmar accountable for addressing the allegations raised by Amnesty International.
"As called for since 2012 by our Supplier Responsible Sourcing Assessment Program, we work with suppliers to remediate unacceptable practices and, as we have done in the past, will terminate any supplier that fails to address labor and human rights concerns. Our use of 100 per cent certified oils represents important sustainability progress, and we support the strengthening of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil program to more fully address labor and human rights concerns. Our policies prohibiting discrimination and child or forced labor can be viewed on our website."
"We welcome Amnesty International's report into human and labour rights issues in the palm oil industry. Although significant progress has been made to tackle the environmental issues associated with palm oil cultivation, we fully agree that much more needs to be done to tackle these deeply concerning social issues. We have started this journey and are fully committed to playing a leading role in addressing this challenge - working with partners to accelerate positive change."
"We are concerned by the findings of the report, which provide further evidence of the risks associated with labour and human rights abuses in the palm oil industry in South East Asia. We will discuss the serious allegations in the report with our supplier Wilmar, and identify what it will do to ensure illegal and unacceptable practices are brought to an end.
"Practices such as those identified in Amnesty International's report have no place in our supply chain. Nestlé engaged extensively with Amnesty during the drafting of the report, including supplying detailed information on our relationship with palm oil supplier Wilmar and on our actions to address human rights and labour rights issues in the sector. We will investigate allegations related to our purchasing of palm oil, along with our suppliers."
Reckitt-Benckiser did not respond to a request to comment.