SINGAPORE: Major brand owners, including Nestlé, Unilever and Procter & Gamble, have been accused of profiting from the use of cheap palm oil produced by child labour.
Amnesty International, the human rights organisation, investigated palm oil plantations in Indonesia run by Wilmar, a Singapore-based agribusiness that controls a significant proportion of the global palm oil trade, and identified nine global firms it said were using the output in their products (the others were AFAMSA, ADM, Colgate-Palmolive, Elevance, Kellogg and Reckitt Benckiser).
It claimed that children as young as eight were carrying out dangerous work without safety equipment, were exposed to toxic pesticides and regularly carried sacks of palm fruit weighing 25kg.
And despite the nine named clients of Wilmar having strong policies on paper, Amnesty said that none could demonstrate that they had identified obvious risks of abuses in the supply chain.
It demanded they tell customers whether the palm oil used in individual products such as Magnum ice-creams, Ariel detergent, Knorr soup, Pantene shampoo and Aero chocolate bars had come from refineries using child labour.
"These findings will shock any consumer who thinks they are making ethical choices in the supermarket when they buy products that claim to use sustainable palm oil," said Meghna Abraham, Senior Investigator at Amnesty.
"There is nothing sustainable about palm oil that is produced using child labour and forced labour," she stated. "Something is wrong when nine companies turning over a combined revenue of £260bn in 2015 are unable to do anything about the atrocious treatment of palm oil workers earning a pittance."
Seven of the firms confirmed to Amnesty that they bought palm oil from Wilmar's Indonesian operations, but only two – Kellogg and Reckitt Benckiser – were willing to give any level of detail about which products were affected.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported responses from Colgate-Palmolive, Nestlé, Kellogg and Unilever which expressed concern at the findings and passed the buck to Wilmar.
Amnesty rejected as a "cop-out" suggestions by some companies that traceability was an issue. "You can be sure that if one of these companies' products were contaminated and had to be taken off the shelves of supermarkets, they would ensure that they could trace the source to specific plantations," said Peter Frankental, Amnesty's business and human rights programme director.
Data sourced from Amnesty International, Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian; additional content by Warc staff