Should Australia be subsidising child slavery in palm oil plantations?
The environmental and social destruction wreaked by the expansion of palm oil plantations has long been known. However, it has now been revealed that palm oil plantation operators in Malaysia have enslaved tens of thousands of Indonesian migrant workers and their children, holding them in isolated barracks with no clean water, lighting or other facilities, nor any transportation to leave the plantation.
The Australian Government could well be supporting this atrocity by providing a 38 cents a litre subsidy for palm oil imports from Malaysia as part of the Cleaner Fuels Grants Scheme administered by the Australian Tax Office. HSI has been calling on the Government to revoke the subsidies on this oil, due to extreme damage caused to biological diversity and negative impacts on climate change damage - a policy Environment Minister Peter Garrett described as a “public policy car crash” prior to the 2007 federal election.
“The subsidy for palm oil is a hangover from the previous Government. Having criticised the policy when in opposition, and with these recent reports of significant human rights violations at the hands of plantation operators, there is absolutely no excuse for this Government to maintain such a misguided subsidy,” said HSI’s Senior Programs Manager, Nicola Beynon.
HSI was appalled to learn that the children of Indonesian migrant workers at the Sabah plantations in Malaysia are forced to work all day long through unregulated working hours. They are denied any identification documents, including birth certificates, which effectively blocks their rights to a formal education. This perpetuates the cycle where they remain illegal and have no choice but to continue serving as migrant workers, trapped in “bonded labour” - the modern equivalent of slavery. The human rights abuses were revealed by the Indonesian National Commission for Child Protection.
Palm oil production was already notorious for the felling and draining of vast swathes of peat swamp forest and other tropical forests across South East Asia, causing massive greenhouse gas emissions and sounding the death knell for species like the Orangutan.
“The Government has had almost a year to stew on this policy, fully cognisant of the environmental destruction it contributes to,” said Ms Beynon. “In light of the most recent reports of human rights abuses, and the well-known and disastrous environmental impacts, the Treasurer must remove the subsidy immediately, and instigate a meaningful product labelling system.”
In 2007, the Dutch Government set a precedent by excluding palm oil from ‘green energy’ subsidies for two years, or until the sector is able to develop a clear certification scheme that guarantees the fulfilment of sustainability criteria. In doing so, the Dutch Environment Ministry expressed regret for supporting palm oil in the past. HSI is once again urging the Australian Government to do the same.