They are two young girls from two very different worlds, linked by a global industry that exploits an army of children.
Olivia Chaffin, a Girl Scout in rural Tennessee, was one of the best biscuit sellers in her troupe when she first heard about rainforests being destroyed to make way for ever-expanding palm oil plantations. On one of those plantations a continent away, 10-year-old Ima helped harvest the fruits that find their way into a dizzying array of products sold by leading Western food and cosmetic brands.
Ima is among the estimated tens of thousands of children who frequently work with their parents in Indonesia and Malaysia, and provide 85% of the world’s most widely consumed vegetable oil. An Associated Press investigation found that most earn little or no pay and are routinely exposed to toxic chemicals and other hazardous conditions. Some never go to school or learn to read or write. Others are smuggled across borders and are vulnerable to human trafficking or sexual abuse.
The AP used U.S. customs records and the most recently released data from manufacturers, traders, and buyers to track the fruits of their labor from the processing plants that crush palm kernels to the supply chains of many popular child cereals, candy, and ice cream owned by Nestle, Unilever , Kellogg’s, PepsiCo and many other leading food companies including Ferrero – one of the two Girl Scout biscuit makers.
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Olivia, who had earned a badge for selling more than 600 biscuits, discovered 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 this meant her thin mints and tagalongs weren’t harming rainforests, orangutans, or those who harvested the orange-red palm fruits.
11-year-old Whip Smart later saw the word “mixed” on the label and quickly learned that it meant exactly what she feared: Sustainable palm oil had been mixed with oil from unsustainable sources. To her, that meant the cookies she was selling were spoiled.
Moved to work in fourth grade
Thousands of kilometers away in Indonesia, Ima was leading her math class and dreamed of becoming a doctor. Then her father let her drop out of school to pursue his lofty corporate goals on the palm oil plantation where she was born. Instead of going to fourth grade, she crouched in the relentless heat and grabbed the loose grains that lay on the floor.
She sometimes worked 12 hours a day, wearing only flip-flops and no gloves, and cried when the razor-sharp spikes of the fruit bled her hands or scorpions prick her fingers. The cargoes she was carrying went to one of the mills fed into the Olivia’s biscuit supply chain.
“I dream of going back to school one day,” she told the AP.
Dark spot on the $ 65 billion industry
Child labor has long been a dark mark on the global palm oil industry, valued at $ 65 billion, identified as a problem by right-wing groups, the United Nations, and the US government.
Some small children in both countries have little or no access to daycare and follow their parents into the fields. In some cases, an entire family can make less than a $ 5 box of Girl Scout Do-si-dos in a day.
“For 100 years, families have been in a cycle of poverty and know nothing but work on a palm oil plantation,” said researcher Kartika Manurung, who has published reports on work problems on Indonesian plantations.
The AP’s investigation into child labor is part of a more in-depth study of the industry that also uncovered rape, forced labor and human trafficking. Reporters crossed Malaysia and Indonesia and spoke to more than 130 current and former workers – about two dozen of them child laborers – in nearly 25 companies.
US Customs and Borders in Septemberof palm oil and palm oil products from FGV Holdings Berhad, a major manufacturer in Malaysia, after a wide variety of indicators of labor abuse were found, including physical and sexual violence and forced child labor. The customs warrant came a week after the Associated Press investigation uncovered a litany of labor abuse in the palm oil industries in Malaysia and Indonesia.
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“We would like to call on the US import community again to do their due diligence,” said Brenda Smith, assistant commissioner at the US Department of Commerce and Border Protection, in September, adding that they should look at their palm oil supply chains. “We also want to encourage US consumers to ask questions about where their products come from.”
The tainted palm oil has been traced back to the supply chains of the world’s best-known food and cosmetic companies, including Unilever, L’Oreal, Nestle and Procter & Gamble.
1.5 million children in Indonesia alone
Indonesian government officials said they do not know how many children are working in the country’s massive palm oil industry. However, the United Nations International Labor Organization has estimated that 1.5 million children between the ages of 10 and 17 are working in their agricultural sector. Palm oil is one of the largest cultures and employs around 16 million people.
In a much smaller neighboring Malaysia, an estimated 33,000 children work in the industry – nearly half of them between the ages of 5 and 11, according to a recent government report. This report did not directly refer to tens of thousands of so-called “stateless” “boys and girls living in the countryside with parents from neighboring countries.
An official from the Malaysian Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but Nageeb Wahab, head of the Malaysian Palm Oil Association, described child labor allegations as very serious and called for complaints to be reported to the authorities.
Soes Hindharno, an official with the Indonesian labor ministry, said he had not received any complaints about child labor in his own country, but an official from the ministry overseeing women’s and children’s issues identified this as an area of growing concern.
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Many producers, western buyers and banks belong to the 4,000-strong Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, a global association that awards a green seal of approval to those who campaign for the use of palm oil that has been certified as ethical. The RSPO has a system for resolving complaints, including allegations of abuse of workers. Of the nearly 100 complaints listed on his case tracker in the two Southeast Asian countries over the past decade, only a handful of children mentioned it.
Dan Strechay, the RSPO’s global director of outreach and engagement, said the association has started working with UNICEF and others to educate members about the importance of child labor.
KitKats, Oreos, Cap’n Crunch and more
Palm oil is found in roughly half of products on supermarket shelves and nearly three in four cosmetic brands, and many children are introduced to it on the day they are born – it is a major fat in infant formula. As they grow, it’s found in many of their favorite foods: pop tarts and cap’n crunch cereals, oreo cookies, KitKat chocolate bars, magnum ice cream, donuts, and even chewing gum.
Olivia isn’t the first Girl Scout to raise questions about how palm oil gets into cookies. More than a decade ago, two girls in a Michigan squad battled their efforts and prompted US Girl Scouts to join the RSPO and agree to use sustainable palm oil. They added the green tree logo to their roughly 200 million cookie boxes, which grosses nearly $ 800 million annually.
The Girl Scouts failed to respond to questions from the AP and referred reporters to the two bakers who make the cookies – Little Brownie Bakers in Kentucky and ABC Bakers in Virginia. These companies and their parent companies, Ferrero and Weston Foods, also did not comment on the results. However, both stated that they only source certified sustainable palm oil.
When other companies were contacted by the AP, they reiterated their support for human rights for all workers, with some noting that they rely on their suppliers to meet industry standards and comply with local laws. If evidence of wrongdoing is found, some said they would immediately cut ties with producers.
“We want to prevent and address the problem of child labor throughout our supply chain,” said Nestle, manufacturer of KitKat chocolate bars. And Kellogg’s, the parent company of Pop-Tarts, said it was determined to work with suppliers to source “fully traceable palm oil”. Mondelez, who owns Oreo cookies, or Cap’n Crunch parent company PepsiCo didn’t respond.
14-year-old Olivia, who lives in Jonesborough, Tennessee, has started a petition to remove palm oil from Boy Scout cookies. And she stopped selling them.
“I thought Girl Scouts should make the world a better place,” she said. “But that doesn’t make the world any better.”