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Sustainability Checks on Unilever Plantations Shouldn’t Be Used as Proof of Compliance With Workers’ Human Rights

“All of these companies are benefiting from, and contributing to, severe labor abuses in their palm oil supply chain.”

Six months after a scathing Amnesty International on working conditions in Indonesia’s palm oil plantations, one of the commodity’s largest buyers has acknowledged that the abuses are endemic and still unresolved, but “some progress” has been made.

Consumer giant Unilever responded to questions about the labor problems revealed by Amnesty International, saying in a prepared statement: “the issues raised are industry-wide and we continue to meet with our palm oil suppliers … to review how they are addressing these in their own and extended supply chains.”

Amnesty surveyed five plantations belonging to subsidiaries or suppliers of Indonesian agribusiness giant Wilmar, which provides palm oil to Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive and other multinational consumer products companies. It found a litany of problems, such as child labor, sub-minimum wages and forced labor, or situations where workers were threatened with punishments or deductions if productively quotas were not met. In addition, women workers spray pesticides and herbicides — including the EU-banned paraquat — without protection.

After the release of the report, “The Great Palm Oil Scandal: Labour Abuses Behind Big Brand Names,” Unilever said it would “investigate the grievances” raised.

As Amnesty notes in its report, none of the companies denied that the abuses were taking place, “but neither did they provide any examples of action taken to deal with labor rights abuses in Wilmar’s operations.”

This is not the first time that Unilever’s conduct contradicts its media reputation as model corporate citizen. The Anglo-Dutch giant has faced criticism for other health- and labor-related issues, including worker exploitation and systemic sexual harassment in developing countries.

In Pakistan, Unilever’s use of third-party manufacturing contracts distanced the company from ethically questionable practices, much like the Wilmar situation. The company farmed out production of its Lifebuoy brand and other soaps to Ashraf Soap, which paid workers less than $100 per month.

After workers there staged protests in 2012, the company was forced into negotiations to improve conditions and rehire those who were arbitrarily fired. Similarly, Unilever had to address conditions at its directly owned Lipton/Brooke Bond tea factory in Pakistan, where casual workers who demanded permanent employment were denied work altogether, exacerbating their financial hardship.

In Kenya, a pattern of sexual harassment, poor housing and low wages was uncovered at the Unilever-owned Lyons Tea Kericho plantation, according to a 2011 report by the Netherlands-based Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (Somo).

In an investigation by the Irish Times, a senior researcher at Somo, Sanne van der Wal, said that despite these findings, Lyons Tea makes claims about the ethical credentials of its product.

“If companies claim that they are different, that they have great ethical policies, and you see these claims on the packs but the reality is totally different, then the customer should know this,” he said.

The same Somo report singled out Unilever’s tea plantations in India — where Unilever buys tea from suppliers in Assam and Tamil Nadu. The report claims workers are kept on rolling short-term contracts, denying them health and pension benefits, and are often exposed to dangerous pesticides while working. Again, much like the Wilmar situation.

The Amnesty and Somo reports illustrate a pattern in which Unilever relies on audits by sustainable agriculture groups that are clearly falling short when it comes to making accurate assessments of health and labor conditions.

When auditors visit the estate, “what they see is like a theater; it is not the real situation,” van der Wal says.

The maker of such products as Dove soap and Magnum ice creams, Unilever has led the movement to buy palm oil grown sustainably, thereby protecting tropical forests that have been cleared to grow the crop.

But while Unilever has made real strides to address charges of environmental degradation, it has not made the same progress in monitoring the working conditions of its employees, according to Amnesty’s report on the palm oil industry.

Sustainability certification systems to check conditions on the plantations “cannot and should not be used as proof of compliance with workers’ human rights,” it said.

By failing to take stock of human rights, the report concluded, “all of these companies are benefiting from, and contributing to, severe labor abuses in their palm oil supply chain.”

Note: An earlier version of this article appears as an op-ed at The Progressive.

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