Horrors Befall the Women Who Make Beauty Products Possible

The AP investigates the palm oil industry
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Nov 21, 2020 9:18 AM CST
The Horrors Behind the Palm Oil in Your Beauty Products
Female workers carry heavy loads of fertilizer at a palm oil plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia, Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017. Some women spread up to 880 pounds of fertilizer, nearly a half-ton, over the course of a day.   (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)

A 16-year-old girl recalls how her boss raped her amid the tall trees on an Indonesian palm oil plantation that feeds into some of the world’s best-known cosmetic brands. At another plantation, a woman named Ola complains of fevers, coughing, and nose bleeds after years of spraying dangerous pesticides with no protective gear. Making just $2 a day, with no health benefits, she can’t afford to see a doctor. Hundreds of miles away, Ita, a young wife, mourns the two babies she lost in the third trimester. She regularly lugged loads several times her weight throughout both pregnancies, fearing she would be fired if she did not. These are the invisible women of the palm oil industry, among the millions of daughters, mothers and grandmothers who toil on vast plantations across Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia, which together produce 85% of the world’s most versatile vegetable oil.

Palm oil is found in everything from potato chips and pills to pet food, and also ends up in the supply chains of some of the biggest names in the $530 billion beauty business, including L’Oréal, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Avon, and Johnson & Johnson, helping women around the world feel pampered and beautiful. The AP conducted the first comprehensive investigation focusing on the brutal treatment of women in the production of palm oil and found widespread abuses in the two countries, including human trafficking, child labor, and outright slavery. More:

  • Women are burdened with some of the industry’s most difficult and dangerous jobs, spending hours waist-deep in water tainted by chemical runoff and carrying loads so heavy that, over time, their wombs can collapse and protrude.
  • Many are hired by subcontractors on a day-to-day basis without benefits, performing the same jobs for the same companies for years, even decades. They often work without pay to help their husbands meet otherwise impossible daily quotas.
  • Indra, 27, dreams of leaving her job at Malaysia’s Sime Darby Plantations, but it’s hard to build another life with no education and no other skills. Women in her family have worked on the same Malaysian plantation since her great-grandmother left India as a baby in the early 1900s. Like many laborers in both countries, they can’t afford to give up the company’s basic subsidized housing, which often consists of rows of dilapidated shacks without running water. That ensures the generational cycle endures, maintaining a cheap, built-in workforce.
  • Read the extremely in-depth AP piece in full here.
(More palm oil stories.)

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