Workers in the Palm Oil Industry : Exploitation, Resistance and Transnational Solidarity

Oliver Pye, Ramlah Daud, Kartika Manurung and Saurlin Siagian


Transporting the Fresh Fruit Bunches to the road (Photo: Kartika Manurung)

In recent years, palm oil has become a highly politicized com- modity in Germany. Many NGOs and civil society groups have criticized the impact of an expanding palm oil industry on the remaining rainforests in Southeast Asia. They have made a simple and compelling connection between the consumption of palm oil in Germany and the destruction of rainforests and biodiversity – particularly in Indonesia. As images of the 2015 haze crisis went around the globe, this connection was high- lighted for the umptieth time: Indonesia’s forests are burning because of the huge demand for palm oil for which Germany is partly responsible.

This paper discusses a key issue of this globalised agri- business: labour conditions and the potential of workers to change the industry. While palm oil generates huge profits for the transnational companies involved, workers are paid brutally low wages. Indeed, palm oil is globally so success- ful because of the high exploitation rates that characterize the industry. Despite repressive labour laws and precarious working conditions, however, workers are developing their own practices of everyday resistance. This paper is intended as a contribution to the transnational campaigns linking activists in Germany with activists in Southeast Asia. We argue that cam- paigners should start to include workers in the campaigns, and that an alliance between environmental and labour activists could become a powerful movement for change.

Because of the way current campaigns on palm oil are framed – global demand drives palm oil expansion – and the focus on consumption patterns that this framing generates, most campaigning around palm oil has taken the form of consumer-oriented campaigns. Some of the more successful cam- paigns focused on the political project of subsi- dising palm oil for agrofuels and fed into work and pressure that eventually managed to scale down agrofuel targets in the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive. Most of the campaigning, however, still focuses on the consumption by individuals of household products such as chocolate bars, crisps, margarine, or cosmetics. For example, the alliance ‘Regenwald statt Palmöl’ suggests boycotting products with palm oil as the only course of action. (http:/

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