When Westerners see palm oil listed as an ingredient in their snacks, they should know “it’s the same as consuming our sweat and blood,” says a man who was twice trafficked. AP investigates.
It started with a question.
While covering the Rohingya crisis, Minnesota-based investigative reporter Robin McDowell and Jakarta, Indonesia-based Margie Mason knew tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Myanmar were vulnerable to exploitation when they arrived in Malaysia. With a huge labor shortage in the palm oil sector, they wondered: Were desperate men being tricked or sold to help harvest fruit that ends up in the supply chains of some of America’s most iconic food and cosmetic brands?
That initial question launched a story that involved hundreds of interviews, many of them with frightened workers conducted under fraught circumstances. Many of the workers spoke of brutal conditions including child labor, outright slavery and allegations of rape. McDowell and Mason worked for months with New York-based editor Kristin Gazlay to land the deeply reported story.
Further, the reporters used data from producers, traders and buyers, as well as U.S. Customs records, to connect the oil harvested by the workers to major brands like Unilever, L’Oreal, Nestle and Procter & Gamble, and also showed how leading Western financial institutions pour billions of dollars into the industry.
The package, richly illustrated with photos by Bangkok-based photographer Gemunu Amarasinghe and Sumatra, Indonesia-based stringer Binsar Bakkara, vividly documented the horrors some workers in Malyasia and Indonesia face harvesting a product contained in half the items on supermarket shelves, ranging from toothpaste to candy bars. The work also included impressive video on the plantations and a video explainer on the pervasive use of palm oil in consumer products.
Reaction to the story was immediate. U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown and Ron Wyden called for a government ban on importing products made with child or forced labor and for holding companies accountable for labor abuses. And this week, the U.S. government said it would block shipments from a major Malaysian palm oil producer that was among those mentioned in the story, citing indications of forced labor, as well as physical and sexual violence.
For exposing abuses affecting tens of thousands of workers in a global industry that manufactures a vast array of products we buy and use daily, McDowell, Mason, Amarasinghe and Bakkara win this week’s Best of the Week prize.