An invisible workforce of millions of workers from some of Asia's poorest countries toil in the palm oil industry, many of them enduring various forms of exploitation, including child labour, outright slavery and allegations of rape, an AP investigation has found.
In Malaysia and Indonesia, these workers tend the heavy reddish-orange palm oil fruit that makes its way into the supply chains of many iconic food and cosmetics companies like Unilever, L'Oreal, Nestle and Procter & Gamble.
Together, the two Southeast Asian countries produce about 85 per cent of the world's estimated US$65 billion palm oil supply.
Palm oil is virtually impossible to avoid. Often disguised on labels as an ingredient listed by more than 200 names, it can be found in roughly half the products on supermarket shelves – from paints to pills, animal feed and even hand sanitiser – and in most cosmetic brands.
The investigation interviewed nearly 130 people from eight nations who were current and former workers on two dozen plantations across Malaysia and Indonesia.
Almost all had complaints against their treatment, with some saying they were cheated, threatened, held against their will or forced to work off crippling debts.
Others said they were regularly harassed by authorities, swept up in raids and detained in crowded government facilities. They included members of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority, who fled ethnic cleansing in their homeland only to be sold into the palm oil industry.
Though labour issues have largely been ignored, the punishing effects of palm oil on the environment have been decried for years.
Still, giant Western financial institutions like JPMorgan Chase, Deutsche Bank and the Vanguard Group have continued to help fuel a crop that has exploded globally, soaring from just 5 million tonnes in 1999 to 72 million tonnes today, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
Sometimes they invest directly but, increasingly, third parties are used like Malaysia-based Malayan Banking Berhad, or Maybank, one of the world's biggest palm oil financiers.
It not only provides capital to growers but, in some cases, processes the plantations' payrolls, with arbitrary and inconsistent wage deductions that are considered indicators of forced labour.
"This has been the industry's hidden secret for decades," said Gemma Tillack of the US-based Rainforest Action Network, which has exposed labour abuses on palm oil plantations. "The buck stops with the banks. It is their funding that makes this system of exploitation possible."
The AP found widespread labour abuses on plantations big and small, including some that meet certification standards set by the global Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an association that promotes ethical production – including labour practices – and whose members include growers, buyers, traders and environmental watchdogs.
Some of the same companies that display the RSPO's green palm logo signifying its seal of approval have been accused of continuing to grab land from indigenous people and destroying virgin rainforests that are home to orangutans and other critically endangered species.
As global demand for palm oil surges, plantations are struggling to find enough labourers, frequently relying on brokers who prey on the most at-risk people.
Many foreign workers end up fleeced by a syndicate of recruiters and corrupt officials and often are unable to speak the local language, rendering them especially susceptible to trafficking and other abuses.
They sometimes pay up to US$5,000 just to get their jobs – an amount that could take years to earn in their home countries – often showing up for work already crushed by debt. Many have their passports seized by company officials to keep them from running away, which the United Nations recognises as a potential flag of forced labour.
Countless others remain off the books, including migrants working without documentation and children who AP reporters witnessed squatting in the fields like crabs, picking up loose fruit alongside their parents. Many women also work for free or on a day-to-day basis, earning the equivalent of as little as US$2 a day, sometimes for decades.
The AP talked to some female workers who said they were sexually harassed and even raped in the fields, including some minors.
The workers interviewed came from Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, the Philippines and Cambodia, along with Myanmar, which represents the newest army of exploited labourers. The AP is not fully identifying them or their plantations to protect their safety.
"We work until we are dying," said one worker sitting in a room with two other colleagues at a Malaysian plantation run by Felda, a government-owned company. Their eyes filled with tears after learning Felda was one of the world's largest palm oil producers.
"They use this palm oil to make all these products," he said. "It makes us very sad."
The Malaysian government was contacted by the AP repeatedly over the course of a week, but issued no comment. Felda also did not respond, but its commercial arm, FGV Holdings Berhad, said it had been working to address workers' complaints, including making improvements in recruitment practices and ensuring that foreign labourers have access to their passports.
Nageeb Wahab, head of the Malaysian Palm Oil Association, a government-supported umbrella group, called the allegations against the industry unwarranted. "All of them are not true," he said.
The Indonesian Palm Oil Association said it has been striving to improve labour conditions for the last five years.
Soes Hindharno, spokesman for the country's Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration, said any firm violating government rules and regulations on serious issues like child labour and not paying women workers could face sanctions, including having their operations shut down.