Precarious employment, lower pay and exposure to chemicals: the gender divide in the palm oil industry

Precarious employment, lower pay and exposure to chemicals: the gender divide in the palm oil industry

A woman prepares the chemicals she has to spray at an oil palm plantation in the South Labuhan Batu district of Indonesia.

(Laura Villadiego)

At the end of every working day spent spraying fertilizer at an oil palm plantation, Nila returns home feeling dizzy and sometimes nauseous. “I’m better now than when I used to spray pesticides as well,” explains the slight, 25-year-old woman (whose name, like those of the other workers, has been changed in this report, to protect her identity). Her labour is not valued as much as that of her husband, who works as a picker at the same plantation. She is paid less, despite working similar hours, and is denied a stable contract.

Although academic literature on the gender inequalities in the palm oil industry remains scarce, the researchers, activists and workers consulted unanimously pointed to the existence of a gender gap: women receive lower pay, are almost always hired as day labourers and generally take care of maintenance tasks, causing them to suffer from more health problems, due to their constant exposure to pesticides and fertilizers.

“The women on the plantations have no rights, not even the right to a salary in many cases,” says Herwin Nasution, president of SERBUNDO, a trade union alliance representing mainly agricultural workers in Indonesia, the world’s largest palm oil producer. “They live in a paternalistic society, where no one listens to them.”

The gender divide is one of the least visible faces of this controversial oil, the most widely consumed in the world, with environmental, social and health impacts that have prompted the European Parliament to approve a motion for a non-legislative resolution calling on the European Commission (EC) to regulate it.

“It is a very firm call to order directed at the European Commission and a strong echo of public sentiment in Europe regarding palm oil,” says Florent Marcellesi, an MEP for EQUO (Greens/European Free Alliance group). For Marcellesi, although the motion does not constitute an obligation to regulate, the outcry is so strong that the Commission and the industry are obliged to take action. The European Commission has responded with assurances that the matter will be discussed at a conference on deforestation and illegal logging at the end of June, and insisted that “the EU has consistently been at the forefront of action in this area, through both international and domestic initiatives”.

Nila’s working day begins at eight in the morning with a daily meeting where she will found out whether or not she will have work that day. “If they don’t need me, they send me home and I earn nothing that day,” says Nila. If she is fortunate enough to have work for the day, she’ll earn around 66,000 Indonesian rupees (around €4.50, US$5.00) for spraying four hectares of trees.

Her husband, meanwhile, is employed on a permanent contract to cut the large leaves from the oil palm trees and collect the bunches of red fruit, for a monthly salary of 2.3 million rupees (€154, US$173), which works out at around 100,000 rupees a day (just under €7.00, US$7.50). Nila is only able to earn a maximum of 1.3 million rupees a month (€87, US$98), for the 20 days’ work she is hired to do, at the most, which is well below the minimum wage of 1.96 million rupees (€131, US$147) established in the province for 2017.

The pay gap is not, however, unique to the palm oil industry. According to a recent report by the International Labour Organisation, the gender pay gap in Indonesia widened considerably between 2010 and 2014, when 45 per cent of women with employment contracts – as compared with 25 per cent of the men – were earning less than two thirds of the average wage. The international organisation does not, however, have figures on casual workers like Nila.

At the end of her working day, if she has any strength left, Nila helps her husband to collect the loose fruit that has fallen from the large bunches from which the prized oil is made. The pay for this work goes to her husband, as part of his monthly salary. “The loose fruit is the most valuable part of the oil palm. The women are doing the most valuable work,” says Janarthani Arumugan, an independent researcher who has studied the situation of women on the plantations. “A huge amount of money is being made on the backs of women,” she continues.

But one of the greatest problems, insist the experts, is their constant exposure to chemicals without the necessary safety measures. A recent report by Amnesty International, which investigated the plantation for which Nila works, among others, denounces the use of toxic chemicals without adequate safety equipment.

Paraquat, a herbicide that has been linked to cancer and a range of other health problems, is amongst the chemicals identified by Amnesty International. Nila herself confirms that she is not provided with any kind of safety equipment and her only protection is a scarf she uses to cover her nose and mouth, to try to avoid breathing in the chemicals. Her arms, however, are exposed, and her skin is constantly irritated. “The doctor says it’s a common allergy and it isn’t connected to the work,” explains Nila, who is only allowed to see the doctor who works for the plantation – rather than going to the local hospital – which is common practice, according to the trade union organisation SERBUNDO.

Lifelong instability

Ami, aged 39, knows nothing other than the oil palm plantation where she lives. Her parents worked as labourers for the company, and she has been working on the same oil palm plantation since she was 15. She has, however, seen an improvement in conditions over the years, and especially since the company secured RSPO sustainable certification. “Now they provide those of us spraying pesticides with safety gear,” explains Ami, who, unlike Nila, says she has never suffered from any work-related ailments.

But, despite working for the same company for almost 25 years, Ami has not been able to secure recognition as a permanent employee. “You have to be a man to get a permanent contract...they don’t want to have to pay you if you get pregnant,” says the robust woman, who has four children, the youngest of which is just three years old.

Working without a contract places women in a very vulnerable position, and they are often penalised with the loss of their jobs, even when they personally are not at fault. “Women are always the first to lose their jobs on the plantations, because the management uses them to threaten the husbands that ‘stir up trouble’ around labour rights,” says Janarthani Arumugan. She goes on to explain that women’s access to trade unions is also limited, because “they are controlled by men, who relegate women to the unequal status of casual workers”, which creates “tension between the sexes”.

For Chris Wangkay of Oxfam Indonesia, one of the key problems is the lack of research into the real needs of the women on the plantations. “There is a huge lack of information. We need, first of all, to collect data from the women themselves, to ascertain what their key problems and priorities are,” says Wangkay. “That way we will be able to develop a better understanding of the problem.”

Oxfam is currently working with other organisations and meeting up with women to draw up a guide to gender issues for RSPO members.

The European Parliament has called on the European Commission for a new certification system controlled by Europe, as “it has been proven that [RSPO] doesn’t work”, says Marcellesi. “The industry has to be decoupled from its certification system, because there is a conflict of interests,” explains the MEP. This issue is highlighted in the Amnesty International report, which reveals that at least one certified plantation was using paraquat, and accuses companies of using certification as a shield against greater scrutiny.

The European Parliament’s motion, continues Marcellesi, goes beyond palm oil and seeks to establish minimum requirements for other agribusiness crops such as soy or sugarcane. “The real problem lies in the monoculture of any plant that leads to deforestation and attacks on workers’ rights or indigenous peoples’ rights,” concludes Marcellesi. “The battle we are currently waging is using palm oil as an example [to regulate other industries].”

This article has been translated from Spanish.