Palm oil is a Janus-faced commodity, worshiped on one side, and condemned by the other. On one side, it helps alleviating our planet’s current global warming problems – all despite slash-and-burn allegations by certain environmental protection movements worldwide. On the other hand, it is one of vicious exploitation, and of repressive human rights abuses, of the labors toiling hard to fulfill the former.
This article, highlighting the situation faced by many of Indonesia’s palm oil industry workers, was released in Bloomberg Businessweek in July 2013. This article serves no intention to outflank one of Indonesia’s most strategic economic sectors, though; it only helps voicing out the concerns of those who have long been oppressed by certain irresponsible corporations in charge of this industry worth 44 billion US$.
The experience of “Adam,” a 19-year-old Indonesian from North Sumatra, shows the coercion faced by untold numbers of palm oil workers. (Out of concern for their safety, Adam and another alleged victim asked that their names be changed.) In July 2010 a stocky Indonesian foreman named Atisama Zendrato allegedly lured Adam and his cousin two thousand miles away from their home in Nias, a poor, largely underdeveloped North Sumatran island. He promised to pay them $6 a day (roughly the minimum wage at their destination in Borneo) to drive trucks. Partway through the three-week journey to Berau, East Kalimantan—after Zendrato had transported them and 18 other recruits, some as young as 14, to his house in Duri—he compelled them to sign contracts that spelled out different terms, Adam says.
The contracts bound the workers to Zendrato’s boss, a Malaysian based in Medan, North Sumatra, named M. Handoyo, and compelled them “to work without the freedom to choose the type of work, to be obliged to do any work as asked by the employer.” Under the terms, the daily wage was dropped to $5 per day. But Zendrato allegedly said the firm wouldn’t pay workers anything for two years, instead “loaning” them up to $16 a month for necessities such as rudimentary health care. Food beyond meager rations could only be purchased from a company store allegedly owned by Handoyo. The contract stated that workers, who included men, women, and children, would not be allowed to leave the plantation, even temporarily, without permission, and that Handoyo “will not accept any reason/excuse whatsoever from the [worker] to go back to his/her village during the [two-year] term of this contract.”