Child labor in palm oil industry tied to Girl Scout cookies

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

Ima is among the estimated tens of thousands of children working alongside their parents in Indonesia and Malaysia, which supply 85% of the world’s most consumed vegetable oil. An Associated Press investigation found most earn little or no pay 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.

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 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, the whip-smart 11-year-old saw the word “mixed” in all caps on the label and turned to the internet, quickly learning that 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.

Thousands of miles away in Indonesia, Ima led her class in math and dreamed of becoming a doctor. Then one day her father made her quit school because he needed help meeting the high company targets on the palm oil plantation where she was born. Instead of attending fourth grade, she squatted in the unrelenting heat, snatching up the loose kernels littering the ground and 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 would lose her footing, went to one of the very 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.

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 rights groups, the United Nations and the U.S. government.

With little or no access to daycare, some young children follow their parents to the fields, where they come into contact with fertilizers and some pesticides that are banned in other countries. As they grow older, they push wheelbarrows heaped with fruit two or three times their weight. Some weed and prune the trees barefoot, while teen boys may harvest bunches large enough to crush them, slicing the fruit from lofty branches with sickle blades attached to long poles.

In some cases, an entire family may earn less in a day than a $5 box of Girl Scout Do-si-dos.

“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. 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.

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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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Indonesian government officials said they do not know how many children work in the country’s massive 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.

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. The study was conducted in 2018 after the country was slammed by the U.S. government over the use of child labor, and it did not directly address the large number of migrant children without documents hidden on many plantations in its eastern states, some of whom have never seen the inside of a classroom.

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 that the association has started working with UNICEF and others to educate members about what constitutes child labor.

Strechay said many parents in Indonesia and Malaysia believe it’s the “cultural norm” for their kids to work alongside family members, even if it means pulling them out of school. “And that’s not OK,” he said.

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.

And in a world where more and more consumers are demanding to know the provenance of the raw materials in the products they purchase, many companies are quick to issue assurances that 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 in Jonesborough, Tennessee, to inspect the ingredients printed on cans and wrappers. Then she began digging through her shampoos and lotions, trying to make sense of the scientific-sounding names she saw there.

Now 14, Olivia has fired letters off to the head of Girl Scouts of the USA, demanding answers about how the palm oil is sourced for the organization’s cookies. 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 did not respond to questions from the AP, directing reporters to the two bakers that make the cookies. Those companies and their parent corporations also 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.”

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Many kids are introduced to palm oil soon after they’re born – it’s a primary fat in infant formula. And as they grow, it’s present in many of their favorite foods: It’s in their Pop-Tarts and Cap’n Crunch cereal, Oreo cookies, KitKat candy bars, Magnum 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 to take jobs that others shun, often bringing their wives and children as helpers in order to meet impossibly high daily quotas.

Others have been living 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, which often is a dilapidated shack with no running water and sometimes only limited electricity.

It’s a cycle that 15-year-old Jo was trying to break. Even though he had to help his family in the fields each day, heaving palm fruits high over his head and lobbing them onto trucks, his parents let him keep $6 a month to cover school fees so he could attend 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 behind, sometimes traveling alone on illicit smugglers’ routes known as “jalan tikus,” or rat roads. 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 complaints to be reported to authorities.

Children of migrant parents grow up living in fear they will be 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 Alex and other child workers in the two countries are lack of access to adequate, affordable education and medical care.

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 go to government schools at all.

It’s such an extensive problem that Indonesia has set up learning centers to help some of its children on plantations in the neighboring country, even sending in its own teachers. But with such heavy workloads on plantations, one instructor said he had to beg parents to let their sons and daughters come for even just a half-day of classes. And many children, especially those living in remote, hard-to-reach areas, still have no access to any type of education.

“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 are undermining child laborers’ health and development. Many Indonesian plantations have their own basic clinics, but access may be available only to full-time workers. Travel to a private doctor or hospital can take hours, and most families cannot afford outside care. Migrant children without documents in Malaysia have no right to health care and often are too scared to seek medical help in villages or cities – even in life-threatening emergencies.

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

Ana was just 13 when she first 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 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.

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Olivia is not the first Girl Scout to raise questions about the way palm oil makes its way into the beloved American cookies.

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 they campaigned for several years, the Girl Scouts of the USA became an affiliate member of the RSPO and agreed to start using sustainable palm oil, adding the green tree logo to its roughly 200 million boxes of cookies, which bring in nearly $800 million annually.

The RSPO was created with the best of intentions and it attempts 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, for many food and cosmetic companies facing increased pressure from conscientious consumers, the association’s stamp of approval has become the go-to answer when questions are raised about their commitments to sustainability.

Monitoring the millions of workers hidden beneath palms covering an area equal to 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 that 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 in distant areas hidden from outside eyes.

“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 that 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.

Consumers have their own challenges in trying to buy responsibly. Those, like Olivia, who want to make sense of where their palm oil really comes from often find themselves confused, since the dense terms used to explain what makes palm oil sustainable can sometimes raise even more questions.

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 is going toward promoting sustainable production.

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

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

Palm oil, the highest-yielding vegetable oil, is an important part of the two Southeast Asian countries’ economies and the governments bristle at any form of 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. She continues to toil full time on the plantation 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, saying, “The cookies deceive a lot of people. They think it’s sustainable, but it isn’t.

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