The U.S. said it will ban all shipments of palm oil from one of the world’s biggest producers after finding indicators of forced labor and other abuses on plantations that feed into the supply chains of some of America’s most famous food and cosmetic companies.
The order against Malaysian-owned Sime Darby Plantation Berhad and its local subsidiaries, joint ventures and affiliates followed an intensive months-long investigation by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Trade, said Ana Hinojosa, one of the agency’s executive directors.
Hinojosa said the investigation “reasonably indicates” abuses against workers that included physical and sexual violence, restriction of movement, intimidation and threats, debt bondage, withholding of wages and excessive overtime. Some of the problems appeared to be systemic, occurring on numerous plantations, which stretch across wide swaths of the country, she said.
“Importers should know that there are reputational, financial and legal risks associated with importing goods made by forced labor into the United States,” Hinojosa said in a telephone press briefing.
The order was announced just three months after the federal government slapped the same ban on another Malaysian palm oil giant, FGV Holdings Berhad -- the first palm oil company ever targeted by Customs over concerns about forced labor. The U.S. imported $410 million of crude palm oil from Malaysia in fiscal year 2020, representing a third of the total value shipped in.
The bans, triggered by petitions filed by non-profit groups and a law firm, came in the wake of an in-depth investigation by The Associated Press into labor abuses on plantations in Malaysia and neighboring Indonesia, which together produce about 85% of the $65 billion supply of the world's most consumed vegetable oil. The AP interviewed more than 130 current and former workers from two dozen palm oil companies, including Sime Darby, for its investigation. Reporters found everything from rape and child labor to trafficking and outright slavery on plantations in both countries.
Sime Darby has palm oil plantations covering nearly 1.5 million acres, making it one of Malaysia’s largest producers. It supplies to some of the biggest names in the business, from Cargill to Nestle, Unilever and L’Óreal, according to the companies’ most recently published supplier and palm oil mill lists.
The company issued a press release Thursday saying it has not yet received sufficient information about the allegations that triggered the ban, but was ready to work with the U.S. government and others to address their concerns. It said it is committed to combating forced labor and has implemented robust policies to protect worker’s rights.