Malaysian palm oil giant hit with forced labor allegations

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — An anti-trafficking organization has filed a petition to ban the importation of palm oil produced by one of the world’s largest suppliers, saying it found evidence of child and forced labor on plantations that supply American food and cosmetics companies.

The petition against Malaysia-based Sime Darby Berhad was filed with U.S. Customs and Border Protection by the nonprofit group Liberty Shared. The Tariff Act of 1930 prohibits entry to goods that arrive at U.S. ports if there is reason to believe they contain materials made with forced labor.

Managing Director Duncan Jepsen said Tuesday his group interviewed local and foreign workers over a two-year period, met with civil society groups and scrutinized public disclosures, audit reports, and sustainability initiatives.

In addition to child and forced labor — including deception during the recruitment process, threats and intimidation, the retention of passports, withholding of wages, and inadequate living conditions — Liberty Shared found that Sime Darby had taken few concrete steps to prevent abuses.

The company did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

Malaysia is the world’s second largest producer of palm oil, the most consumed edible oil. Sime Darby is one of the largest producers.

While the industry has come under heavy criticism in recent years for destroying rain forests to make way for plantations, attention has shifted in recent years to conditions faced by its army of workers, around 80% of whom are migrants. The petition against Sime Darby — made public this week — follows two others against another of Malaysia’s palm oil giants, FGV Holdings Berhad (FGV), one by a law firm and the other by a coalition of labor, environmental and social justice NGOs.

Palm oil can be found in up to half of all products currently on grocery store shelves in the U.S. and Europe, from cookies, crackers and cake mixes to soap, laundry detergent and many popular cosmetics brands.

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