Friday, July 26, 2013

Human Trafficking: Your Child Might Be a Target

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Now anyone can be a target, even the person you least expect. Elisabeth Meinecke reports forTownhall Magazine
She was a beautiful, talented young woman who had played the violin at Carnegie Hall. For college, she attended a private university on a large academic scholarship. She studied and didn’t sleep around. She was raised in a faith-based home.
Yet she became a victim of human trafficking, targeted on her college campus. Even now, she remains caught in the dark, twisted world of those who manipulate others in the lucrative business of sex slavery. Her initial trafficker is in jail, but a group of his buddies keeps her ensnared. Her family and trained professionals are trying desperately to draw her back out.
For those on the outside, such a transformation seems impossible. How does a young woman with everything going for her end up here? But for the perpetrators, unfortunately, the case makes all too much sense. Mind games are part of their business. Seduction and manipulation are two of their sharpest tools.
And where they first wield them can be scarily close to home—your child’s campus, or places where your high schooler hangs out.
The Shadow World In Your Backyard
Talk to those who work with human trafficking victims, and you’ll realize it’s not a crime that preys only on society’s marginalized. In the United States, human trafficking is at the point where no socioeconomic class, demographic or community is safe.

Dottie Laster, who’s helped human trafficking victims and assembled a team for this purpose under the umbrella of Laster Global Inc., defines human trafficking as “anyone held in service of another through force, fraud or coercion, and that coercion can be psychological coercion, which is what we most often see … for the purposes of commercial sex or forced labor.” The Polaris Project says human trafficking “is considered to be one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world.”
“I live in a little town of 48,000 people,” Laster says. “I have so many cases here that I accidentally bumped into, I can’t even count them.”
Laster says she noticed about a year ago she was working with more U.S. citizen victims than immigrant victims. She’s also currently working on several high school and college cases.
The average entry age into the sex trade in the United States? Twelve, according to Kathy Wilson, a spokesperson at New Day for Children. New Day is a nonprofit that provides a home for victims of sex trafficking who are 10-18 years old, helping them heal and eventually reunite with family members, if that’s an option. All of the children New Day has worked with so far have been U.S. citizens, with the youngest being 11 years old.
Families can spend thousands of dollars hiring investigators and lawyers when a loved one is in a human trafficking situation. In the violinist’s case, a private investigator Laster had previously trained on human trafficking indicators was hired by the family. When the investigator noticed those indicators in the violinist’s case, the individual reached out to Laster, who is now consulting on the case.
Such assistance provides clarity for families who may know something bad is going on but can only see their daughter acting in a way foreign to her normal self.
“These families are doing great. They’re doing everything they’re supposed to do. But nobody understands what it is until we get involved,” Laster says. “It really makes the case go better when you can finally identify what’s going on.”
The ways by which these victims become entrapped in the industry are legion, ranging from snatch-and-grab (Wilson knows of one victim in her area who simply stepped outside of an Old Navy, her friends inside, to talk on her cell phone, and sex traffickers happened to be cruising by) to a method often referred to as “Romeo.”

Thursday, July 25, 2013

NJ's Chiesa gives first speech on US Senate floor

NJ's Chiesa gives first speech on US Senate floor Travel Deals $119 -- D.C. Hotel near Dupont Circle w/Breakfast & Parking See all travel deals » ANGELA DELLI SANTI, The Associated Press POSTED: Tuesday, July 23, 2013, 3:04 PM TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - The person Gov. Chris Christie chose to temporarily fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate gave his first official speech on Tuesday, saying he'll use his brief time in Washington to raise awareness about the crime of human trafficking. Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa, who is serving in the Senate for four months ending in October, said he rejected the notion that he's a caretaker. Chiesa vowed to uphold the honor of the office by working hard while he's representing New Jersey. "No one who has the high honor and privilege of serving in this body should ever be content to serve as a caretaker, to merely keep the seat warm," said Chiesa, 48. "Representing the people even for a brief period of time demands that one work to make a difference." In his 10-minute address, Chiesa talked about the costs of human trafficking on victims and society. He's led efforts to combat trafficking in two previous jobs under Christie, assistant U.S. attorney and attorney general. He praised last week's arrests of six people accused of moving Mexican women into the United States illegally and making them work as prostitutes, often after promising them jobs as housecleaners or baby sitters, and said aggressive anti-trafficking efforts would continue leading up to the 2014 Super Bowl at Met Life Stadium. He referred to trafficking as "modern-day slavery" and urged his new colleagues to close loopholes that enable y women and children to be kept in bondage. A Republican like Christie, Chiesa was appointed to the seat until a special election to fill the post Sen. Frank Lautenberg held until he died in office on June 3. Christie set the election for Oct. 16, with party primaries on Aug. 13. Chiesa is not running for the seat. Four Democrats and two Republicans are in the race. The best known is Cory Booker. The two-term Newark mayor is far ahead in public opinion polls. Chiesa began the address by joking that his maiden speech and farewell address would be one and the same if he had waited much longer to address the chamber.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Homeland Security Takes on Human Trafficking

Human Interest Stories

Preying on the Vulnerable

At a Halloween party in Oxon Hill, Md., on Oct. 31, 2009, the trafficker met a 12-year-old runaway who asked for his help in finding a place to stay. Instead, the trafficker – a long-time member of the notorious MS-13 gang – forced the young girl into the commercial sex trade the very next day. For more than 3 months, he held her captive, coercing her to have sex for money multiple times a day at a variety of businesses, homes, apartments and hotels in Northern Virginia. Rescuing the victim and successfully prosecuting the perpetrator was the result of collaborative efforts by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations' (HSI) National Gang Unit (NGU) with assistance from the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force.

From Trust to Trafficking

In Chicago, from 2008 through 2010, a trafficker recruited and groomed three women from the Ukraine and one from Belarus to become part of his "Family." He offered them jobs, a place to live and lured each one into a romantic relationship with him. After gaining their trust, he confiscated their passports and identity documents. Then, he forced them to work long hours, often beating, mentally abusing, extorting and sexually exploiting them. HSI led the investigation in coordination with the Cook County State's Attorney's Office and the Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force. Blue Campaign’s victim-centered approach ensured that the women received necessary victim assistance services. All four women testified as government witnesses at the trial.

False Promises of the American Dream

Three confirmed victims, along with 10 potential victims, were rescued from a sex trafficking ring operating in Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The victims were enticed from Mexico and elsewhere to travel to the U.S. with false promises of the American dream. Once here, the women were cut off from their families. They were threatened and forced to commit sex acts throughout the Southeast—one victim reported she was routinely beaten by her trafficker. The trafficking ring even allegedly arranged to hold one of their victim’s children hostage in Mexico to ensure her compliance as a prostitute in the U.S. The investigation, known as “Operation Dark Night,” was lengthy, and was a true coordinated effort by key players supporting Blue Campaign. Operation Dark Night was led by HSI, with assistance from the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP); CBP Air and Marine Operations; the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigations; the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department; the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office; the Garden City Police Department; and the Chatham-Savannah Counter Narcotics Team.

Brothers in Crime

For more than 7 years, from 2003 through 2010, three brothers operated a sex trafficking ring in which they lured young Mexican women – some only 14 years old – and forced them to work in the sex trade in Mexico, New York and other areas within the United States. The victims were required to turn over all of their earnings and threatened with violence against their families. They were also directed to send money to the brothers' family in Mexico, using wire transfer service companies. Sums ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars were transferred at a time, always under fake names. The three brothers frequently relied on each other to watch over the victims when any of them traveled back and forth to Mexico. For this investigative initiative, the U.S. and Mexico collaborated to bring high-impact prosecutions under both U.S. and Mexican law to more effectively dismantle human trafficking networks operating across the U.S.-Mexico border, prosecute human traffickers, rescue human trafficking victims and reunite victims with their families.

10 Years of Trickery and Torture

For more than a decade, from 1998 to 2011, members of the Granados-Hernandez sex trafficking organization smuggled young women from Mexico illegally into the United States, forced them to work in the commercial sex trade in New York and collected profits from their activities. When the victims arrived in New York, they learned – most for the first time – that the Granados-Hernandez 's organization intended to sexually exploit them for money. When they refused or resisted, the women were beaten, sexually assaulted and told that their families would be harmed. After they were rescued, a vast network of organizations and individuals provided services and advocacy to these victims, including: Safe Horizon; Sanctuary for Families; the Urban Justice Center; the New York City Bar Justice Center; The Legal Aid Society, Civil Division (Bronx); My Sister's Place; Bennu Legal Services; the Hispanic Advocate, Instituto para las Mujeres en la Migracion and numerous local attorneys and law firms.

The Youngest Victims: The Victims’ Children

A human trafficking victim was reunited with her child, who had been rescued in Mexico from a trafficking organization. The mother and child had been separated by the organization for over 10 years. After substantial post-conviction investigation and international coordination, the child was located and reunited with the mother. Through the coordinated work of HSI and the Eastern District of New York’s anti-trafficking program, 14 children have been reunited with their mothers, all of whom had been trafficked.

Imprisoned in your Neighborhood

The trafficker, a former resident of Georgia and a citizen of Nigeria, traveled to her home country in 2001 and enticed a 17-year old girl to come to the U.S. to work as her nanny. Once here, she abused the girl, beating her for not cleaning well, for not responding fast enough to her crying child, and for talking back to her. A witness to the abuse, a friend of hers, helped the victim escape. The defendant was not deterred and traveled back to Nigeria to lure a second victim, who was subjected to the same treatment and abuse. Eventually, the second victim also escaped. This case was investigated by HSI, the FBI and the State Department's Diplomatic Security Services. It was complicated by the fact that the defendant left the country during the investigation. The defendant was found and arrested at a Houston airport as she tried to re-enter the country. The defendant was prosecuted and convicted on eight counts by a federal jury.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

6 arrested in New Jersey for human trafficking

JULY 18, 2013

6 arrested in New Jersey for human trafficking

TRENTON, N.J. — Six individuals were arrested on human trafficking charges for allegedly operating brothels in Lakewood. The investigation was conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice.
Jose Cruz Romero-Flores, 38, of Lakewood, aka "Chato," was arrested on charges of first degree human trafficking, second degree promoting organized street crime, and third degree promoting prostitution. Felix Rios-Martinez, 47, and Raul Romero-Castillo, both of Lakewood, were charged with first degree conspiracy to commit human trafficking, second degree promoting organized street crime and third degree promoting prostitution. Santos Lazaero Flores-Cruz, 58, of Union City, and Haliro Bueno, 21, of Lakewood, were both charged with second degree conspiracy to commit human trafficking, second degree promoting organized street crime and third degree promoting prostitution. Odulia Bedran Trejo, 22, of Lakewood, was arrested on charges of second degree promoting organized street crime and third degree promoting prostitution.
"Human trafficking cases have been and continue to be a major priority for HSI," said Special Agent in Charge of HSI Newark Andrew McLees. "HSI's ability to reach beyond our borders into foreign nations where human trafficking is initiated and to partner with our state and local authorities creates a formidable strategy that grants law enforcement an advantage over those who deprive victims of their human rights. We are proud to stand next to our law enforcement partners with the State of New Jersey to announce a great success against this despicable crime."
"We have taken down a major human trafficking and prostitution ring involving brothels in Lakewood," said Acting Attorney General John Hoffman. "The brothels allegedly run by Romero-Flores were part of a network that exploited Mexican women who were tricked or coerced into illegally entering the United States, where they have endured a miserable life of high-volume prostitution. We're making it a top priority to arrest human traffickers and rescue their victims from the shadows, where these crimes occur."
"We continue to target and investigate large-scale human trafficking networks operating in New Jersey and beyond," said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. "We urge any victims or others with information about these human trafficking rings to contact us confidentially."
According to court documents, Romero-Flores, and brothel owners in New Jersey, New York and additional surrounding states, worked together as a loose network to bring women into the United States illegally. The women were primarily from Mexico, but also from other Latin American countries. Romero-Flores and the brothel owners introduced them to a life of prostitution. Many women were tricked into believing they were going to the United States to work as house cleaners or babysitters. In other cases, they were coerced into going to the United States to work the circuit of brothels and ordered to send any money they earned back to Mexico.
The investigation revealed that the brothel owners in the network paid "coyotes" to smuggle women into the United States from Mexico. The women, in many instances, were pressured to repay those who paid for them to be smuggled into the United States. Once women were brought into the circuit, they were moved from brothel to brothel. Romero-Flores allegedly ordered the women who worked for him to meet quotas. It is alleged that it was not uncommon for women who worked for him to service more than 100 clients or "johns" in a six-day week, from Monday through Saturday. Occasionally, they serviced as many as 40 or more johns in a single day. Clients paid $30 for each sexual encounter. Clients came to the brothels or were serviced in "outcalls" where prostitutes were driven to the client's location. Law enforcement believes that several dozen women worked in the brothels run by Romero-Flores over the course of the investigation, but a smaller number of women worked for him at any given time.
Romero-Flores allegedly wired money derived from his brothels to Mexico, where he owns properties. The women returned at the end of the week to other residences located in and around Queens, N.Y., and the Union City-area of N.J. Romero-Flores allegedly routinely drove to Queens to pick up women to work in his brothels.
On July 11, agents and detectives executed search warrants at the brothel located on Brook Road and Romero-Flores's home. They seized several vehicles, $5,800 in cash, identification documents including Mexican passports and driver's licenses, cell phones, laptops, and ledgers that listed the names of women who worked in the brothels and dates they were scheduled to work.
The New Jersey State Police Investigations Section, the New Jersey Human Services Police, the Lakewood Police Department and the Brick Township Police Department all assisted with the investigation.
The charge of first degree human trafficking carries a sentence of 20 years to life in state prison and a criminal fine up to $200,000. The charge of first degree conspiracy to commit human trafficking carries a sentence of 10 to 20 years in state prison and a fine up to $200,000. Second degree charges carry a sentence of five to 10 years in state prison and a fine up to $150,000, while third degree charges carry a sentence of three to five years in state prison and a fine up to $15,000.
The six defendants are being held in the Ocean County Jail with bail set at $1 million for Romero-Flores and $100,000 for each of the other defendants.
The charges are merely accusations and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Lessons of Belle Glade


The Lessons of Belle Glade

Enlarge This ImageWILLIAMSBURG, Va. — IN 1965, the secretary of labor, Willard Wirtz, stood under a porch light in Belle Glade, Fla., facing a crowd of guest workers from the Caribbean. Mr. Wirtz could smell sweat and burned sugar cane on their clothes but couldn’t see them, which was how the workers wanted it. Guest workers were often deported and blacklisted for striking or simply questioning whether they had been paid what they were owed.
Shannon Freshwater

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“I would hear their voices — they would ask questions,” Mr. Wirtz recalled, but “they weren’t going to be identified.”
Congress had just terminated the famously exploitative Bracero Program for Mexican guest workers in response to reports of miserable pay and working conditions and farm employers’ illegal use of braceros as strikebreakers. The last of these workers — 4.5 million over the program’s lifetime — were just leaving when Mr. Wirtz visited Belle Glade to investigate the federal government’s remaining guest-worker program, known as H-2, which annually imported roughly 15,000 men from the Caribbean.
Mr. Wirtz was convinced that growers didn’t need Caribbean guest workers either, given widespread unemployment among American farmworkers, who still fell outside minimum wage, maximum hour, Social Security, workers’ compensation and collective bargaining laws. Until employers lost access to foreign workers, he reasoned, they had no incentive to improve conditions to attract American workers to their farms.
Migrant labor is in the news again, as the House takes up the Senate’s immigration bill and the draconian alternative of Representative Robert W. Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican. Both bills would expand guest-worker programs. But only the Senate plan tries to address their worst features.
Mr. Wirtz’s solution to American farmworkers’ chronic unemployment was to make the H-2 program so expensive that only employers desperate for labor would resort to it. He raised guest-workers’ wages; required employers to pay for workers’ housing and their travel costs from home; and, like his Republican predecessor, made growers search for American workers before he would approve guest workers. Growers insisted that trying to use “local domestic help” was like “trying to convert Castro to democracy,” but over four years, 314 of 350 participating employers switched from guest to domestic workers, with no significant labor shortages or crop losses.
Mr. Wirtz seemed to win, but growers had the last laugh. Abuses continued. Mr. Wirtz had not understood that as long as workers can be threatened with deportation, regulations are unenforceable. No doubt many H-2 employers followed the rules, but others broke them with impunity. H-2 workers were — and still are — threatened with violence, housed in storage sheds, underpaid or not paid, and, most important, deported and blacklisted for doing something about it.
Farmworker advocates were foiled in other ways as well: the more reformers succeeded in extending labor and housing laws to agriculture, the more farm employers resorted to using even more vulnerable undocumented workers. The African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and poor whites who once dominated farm work became rarities. By the 1970s, the big farm-labor housing center in Miami was known as “Mexico City.” Wages and housing conditions remained so depressed that the State Department reportedly sent diplomats bound for developing countries to Belle Glade as part of their training.
Despite these problems, restrictions that kept the H-2 program small were removed in 1986, during the last major immigration overhaul. Abuses multiplied. In 1997, the Government Accountability Office found that the Labor Department had never denied an application to import workers because an employer had violated workers’ legal rights.
Today, growers of any crop in any state can import guest workers from any country. The United States approved about 85,000 agricultural jobs last year, most of which went to Mexicans. But the fortunes of farmworkers have improved little over the decades and now hang in the balance.
The bipartisan Senate compromise is a mixed bag for farmworkers. It would combine increased border security with a path to citizenship — albeit a long path, up to 13 years — for 11 million undocumented immigrants. Unauthorized farmworkers could gain legal status more quickly. But instead of encouraging growers to recruit from among those newly resident farmworkers by improving conditions, the proposal promises growers more guest workers, perhaps over 300,000 by the third year of the program.
New “W” visas would replace the H-2 program and require growers to “attest” to their need for foreign workers, but not prove it. Guest workers would be able to apply for permanent legal status, although it’s unclear if enough green cards would be available. They could also quit an abusive employer for a better one — a big gain — but only if they entered the country with a new W-3 visa that would not provide for free housing and round-trip travel. And workers who felt their rights had been violated could, for the first time, go to federal court.
In contrast, Mr. Goodlatte’s bill would block any path to citizenship, turn unauthorized farmworkers into guest workers and import up to 500,000 more — Bracero redux.
Neither plan does anything to improve wages, require safer housing or protect our mostly immigrant farm labor force from pesticide poisoning. But if an expanded guest-worker program is inevitable, at least the Senate bill, by allowing guest workers some hope of becoming permanent residents, honors the long American tradition of giving the ultimate reward — citizenship — to those who do our dirtiest, most dangerous and essential work.
Cindy Hahamovitch is a history professor at the College of William & Mary and the author of “No Man’s Land: Jamaican Guestworkers in America and the Global History of Deportable Labor .”

Indonesia's Palm Oil Industry Rife With Human-Rights Abuses

 farmworker in Berau, Indonesia, loading oil palm bunches


Indonesia's Palm Oil Industry Rife With Human-Rights Abuses

July 18, 2013
(Corrects date of worker protest at PT Jabontara Eka Karsa plantation.)
“What kind of oil should we buy?” Luo Xiaohua shouts to her cousin from the cooking oil aisle in Yonghui Supermarket in the heart of Chongqing, a rising Chinese megacity. Luo, 50, is the quintessential Chinese shopper. She earns $3,250 a year and has an elementary education. She’s fiercely opinionated about her purchases.
Luo stands before amber-hued bottles loaded with a commodity that fuels China’s and India’s growing consumer classes. “From what I understand, all of these brands contain palm oil,” she says. “But they just don’t say it on the label.” She says she’d prefer to use olive oil but can’t afford it. “Corporations have the power in this country, and consumers have to make decisions based on limited options.”
Palm oil and its derivatives are found in thousands of products worldwide, from doughnuts to soap, lipstick to biodiesel. Globally, palm oil consumption has quintupled since 1990. Demand in Asia, where palm oil is widely used in cooking oil and noodles, has driven the growth of a $44 billion industry. In February, exports from Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of palm oil, hit a five-year high.
Shoppers such as Luo are at the heart of that boom. China is the world’s largest consumer of vegetable oil, of which palm oil is the world’s most-produced variety. Since the late 1970s, as the Chinese shifted away from traditional staples such as rice and grains and toward a higher-fat diet, palm oil imports have grown 150-fold.
As it’s grown, the palm oil industry has drawn scrutiny from environmental activists in Europe and the U.S. They decry the destruction of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia to support oil palm expansion, which threatens the natural habitats of endangered species such as pygmy elephants and Sumatran tigers. The human costs of the palm oil boom, however, have been largely overlooked. A nine-month investigation of the industry, including interviews with workers at or near 12 plantations on Borneo and Sumatra—two islands that hold 96 percent of Indonesia’s palm oil operations—revealed widespread abuses of basic human rights. Among the estimated 3.7 million workers in the industry are thousands of child laborers and workers who face dangerous and abusive conditions. Debt bondage is common, and traffickers who prey on victims face few, if any, sanctions from business or government officials.
The U.S. government has highlighted the prevalence of human-rights abuses in the palm oil trade: A 2012 U.S. Department of Labor report found that among the industries most notorious for forced and child labor were apparel, seafood, gold, and palm oil. But because palm oil companies face little pressure from consumers to change, they continue to rely on largely unregulated contractors, who often use unscrupulous practices. The impact of any reform efforts will be limited unless the new consumer giants—China and India, which account for more than a third of global palm oil imports—are brought into the debate. “We have a Western-facing strategy on an Eastern-facing problem,” says Dave McLaughlin, who oversees agriculture issues for the World Wildlife Fund.
Among the world’s most significant palm oil suppliers is Kuala Lumpur Kepong, a 107-year-old Malaysian corporation. KLK, with revenue in 2012 of $3.2 billion, is by area the world’s fifth-largest palm oil plantation company. Its principal shareholder, a holding company called Batu Kawan, is controlled by KLK’s chief executive and his brother, both among Malaysia’s richest citizens.
In labor-intensive cycles repeated across most of its 73 plantation estates, KLK relies on contractors who in turn enlist thousands of low-wage workers. Those workers first prepare land for the palm groves. After three years, they manually harvest the palm bunches, which can each weigh up to 55 pounds and yield 3,000 fruitlets. Within 48 hours of harvest, trucks carry those bunches, which last year amounted to 3.3 million metric tons, to KLK’s nearby mills. From there, crude palm oil is shipped for further processing at two KLK-owned oleochemical plants in Shanghai and Zhangjiagang, China, or elsewhere, before the refined palm oil or derivatives are sold into the commodity and consumer markets.
The experience of “Adam,” a 19-year-old Indonesian from North Sumatra, shows the coercion faced by untold numbers of palm oil workers. (Out of concern for their safety, Adam and another alleged victim asked that their names be changed.) In July 2010 a stocky Indonesian foreman named Atisama Zendrato allegedly lured Adam and his cousin two thousand miles away from their home in Nias, a poor, largely underdeveloped North Sumatran island. He promised to pay them $6 a day (roughly the minimum wage at their destination in Borneo) to drive trucks. Partway through the three-week journey to Berau, East Kalimantan—after Zendrato had transported them and 18 other recruits, some as young as 14, to his house in Duri—he compelled them to sign contracts that spelled out different terms, Adam says.
The contracts bound the workers to Zendrato’s boss, a Malaysian based in Medan, North Sumatra, named M. Handoyo, and compelled them “to work without the freedom to choose the type of work, to be obliged to do any work as asked by the employer.” Under the terms, the daily wage was dropped to $5 per day. But Zendrato allegedly said the firm wouldn’t pay workers anything for two years, instead “loaning” them up to $16 a month for necessities such as rudimentary health care. Food beyond meager rations could only be purchased from a company store allegedly owned by Handoyo. The contract stated that workers, who included men, women, and children, would not be allowed to leave the plantation, even temporarily, without permission, and that Handoyo “will not accept any reason/excuse whatsoever from the [worker] to go back to his/her village during the [two-year] term of this contract.”
At PT 198, a plantation near Berau owned by top KLK shareholder Batu Kawan, workers entered a system of tightly controlled forced labor, according to Adam and other alleged victims. At least 95 workers were held at the plantation for up to two years. At night they were locked in stifling, windowless barracks. An environmental NGO, Menapak, later reported that they were fed small portions of salted fish and rice, which several said were often weevil-infested. A truck with fresh water came once a month, but that supply would last no more than a week; workers pulled most water for cooking, cleaning, and drinking from a stagnant ditch that ran alongside the barracks. Adam says Handoyo confiscated their national identity cards and school certificates, along with a deed to a home, which his village collectively owned.
Instead of working as drivers or low-level administrators, the workers were ordered to prepare the newly planted palm groves. Some had to spread at least 20 50-kilogram sacks of fertilizer each day. If they fell short, they had to make it up the next day or see their already deferred pay cut. They say they were required to spray with the herbicide Paraquat, a substance that’s been linked to kidney and liver damage and is banned in at least 32 countries. (China, which announced in April it would phase out the herbicide, would be the 33rd.) Because they weren’t given protective gear, some claim to have suffered respiratory damage. An alleged victim, “Jacob,” who was held with his wife for two years at PT 198, reported nightly bloody coughing fits but says Zendrato denied him adequate medical care.
Other workers say those who tried to escape were punished harshly. One young man made it as far as a nearby river before being caught by boatmen whose livelihood depends on the palm oil companies. Once alerted, Zendrato’s men hauled the escapee back and allegedly beat him in front of the others, say Jacob and other witnesses. Several workers report witnessing Zendrato’s enforcers regularly beat workers with wooden clubs and occasionally with the sides of machetes.
Despite the risks, Adam and his cousin decided to flee. Early one morning in late August 2010 they pounded on the locked door of their barracks and asked the guards to allow them to use the latrine. Shrouded in blankets they had taken from the barracks, the young men scrambled beyond that latrine and crawled to the road. A truck from neighboring Berau Coal Energy (BRAU:IJ) happened to pull up. A colleague of the driver’s allowed them to hide from Zendrato’s search parties on his boat for three days and helped them with safe passage to a more populated area.
One month later, after another escaped worker was caught and beaten, a supervisor at PT 198 alerted authorities to the conditions at the plantation. Police from central Berau arrested Zendrato and held him for a day before releasing him without charges. His arrest caught the attention of Menapak, which notified Jakarta-based Sawit Watch, a palm oil watchdog group, and SBSI, a national labor union. On Sept. 24, 2010, Menapak representatives traveled downriver and helped the workers walk away.
In early November 2010, after Rainforest Action Network reported on the abuses at PT 198, representatives of KLK, the plantation’s manager, reached out to the organizations that had investigated the charges. Three workers, including a 14-year-old boy, met with senior KLK officials, who at the time were attending the annual Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) meeting in Jakarta. The officials apologized to the workers for their treatment and said they were unaware of the abuses. They agreed to pay for their return journeys to Nias and to compensate them for their stolen pay. According to KLK CEO Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Lee Oi Hian, the company canceled the contract of CV Sinar Kalimantan and blacklisted the contractor. After the meeting, KLK said “we discovered (but not able to prove) that one of our contract agents had been providing some under-age workers, and also illegally withholding some wages.”
Adam, however, says he was never paid for his work nor given passage home. Former PT 198 workers who were returned to Nias say they were compensated, though the pay varied. One reports receiving $200 for two months’ work. Jacob, who worked for two years and claims to have endured esophageal damage and chemical burns from the herbicide, received $100 in total, or less than 2¢ an hour. KLK CEO Lee said that his company “didn’t hear anything about further claims” for compensation from the workers. According to Lim Poh Poh, a spokeswoman, KLK encouraged the contractor “to pay their workers, which they confirmed to us that they did. … It is their workers and in a way we also want them to be responsible for their workers and to ensure that all the unpaid wages are paid.”
Meanwhile, though claims of workers and managers conflict, it appears that both Zendrato and his boss, Handoyo, may still be involved with KLK. In the fall of 2012, Zendrato attempted to pay at least four men to recruit workers for new plantations in Borneo and Sumatra, according to recordings made by the workers. Several people in contact with Zendrato last fall say he was still recruiting and managing workers for Handoyo’s brother, Hendra, a contractor of PT Adei, a plantation company in the Sumatran province of Riau. Since 1996, KLK has owned 95 percent of PT Adei.
Though Hendra did not respond to requests for comment, he denied to KLK that he employed Zendrato. Reached by phone, Zendrato acknowledges continuing to work in the palm oil industry but denies being involved in any labor abuses at PT 198. “Why are you looking for this ‘Zendrato’?” he asked. “I did not treat people unjustly, nor did I cheat them by not paying their wages.”
KLK has labor issues elsewhere. On March 20 of last year, dozens of workers at PT Jabontara Eka Karsa, a KLK plantation about 100 miles southeast of PT 198, staged a protest against what they said was an unfair wage reduction. A visit this spring to the plantation by reporters working on this article found at least two children gathering palm fruit, while workers there described false wage promises and onerous contracts similar to the one allegedly used at PT 198. Workers say the name at the top of the contract was M. Handoyo—Zendrato’s PT 198 boss. (Handoyo did not respond to requests for an interview, and Lee denies currently contracting with him.)
Bloomberg Businessweek obtained a copy of the contract for land clearance between the Jabontara plantation company and Hendra, Handoyo’s brother. Clauses in that contract prohibit Hendra from outsourcing without permission, using child labor, or paying workers less than minimum wage but also appear to indemnify Jabontara in the case of such labor violations. The contract was executed in December 2010, the month after the abuses at PT 198 were exposed.
In 2012, KLK’s shipments to North America and Europe accounted for 26 percent of its revenue. At least 38 companies have bought KLK’s palm oil and palm oil derivatives since 2009, according to company executives and records from shipping database Import Genius. These include Archer Daniels Midland (ADM)BASF (BASFY), California Oils, and Unilever (UL). Cargill, America’s largest privately held company, received at least 31 shipments of palm oil from KLK, totaling more than 61 million pounds, over the last three years. Cargill has sold palm oil and its derivatives to Nestlé (NSRGY)General Mills (GIS)Kraft Foods (KRFT), and Kellogg (K).
From December 2010 through June 2013, KLK sent a minimum of 18 shipments of at least three types of palm oil derivative, totaling nearly 34 million pounds, to Procter & Gamble (PG). The company uses about 1 percent of global palm oil and its derivatives. Those derivatives appear in such consumer products as Crest toothpaste, Gillette shaving cream, and Oil of Olay skin products, all leaders in U.S. and Chinese markets.
KLK is not the only palm oil company to face allegations of human-rights abuses. Since 1998, Sawit Watch, the Jakarta-based advocacy group, has chronicled hundreds of social conflicts—often concerning wage exploitation or land disputes—on or near palm plantations. Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights has documented thousands of alleged human-rights violations around plantations. On the Malaysian side of Borneo, where at least 70 percent of plantation workers are foreign migrants, laborers are more vulnerable to exploitation because of their immigration status, says Verité, a nonprofit consulting firm that audits labor practices in supply chains for multinationals.
In an interview, KLK’s Lee said, “It is not our policy to condone abuse of workers, ‘slavery’ practices, or exploitation of workers.” He stresses that the company requires contractors to adhere to “rules and regulations of the country” including minimum wage standards, but that KLK management “does not regulate the workers. Some of these workers, of course, are employed by the contractors. But subsequent to the complaints raised by the NGOs … our management is very well aware that they have to check on the contractors.” He claims that “we are moving more and more to direct hire practices.”
An oil-producing palm fruitletPhotograph by Kemal JufriAn oil-producing palm fruitlet
Lee says that he “absolutely” believes that slave and child labor are crimes. When pressed about why he did not report evidence of abuses at PT 198 to local authorities, the CEO said, “You’ve been in Indonesia sometimes, and you know how well the system works in Indonesia, right?” Local authorities, he suggested, were unreliable. Terminating the contract and blacklisting the company “was sufficient enough, was strong enough to send a warning to other contractors within the company.”
When asked about the allegations of abuse on KLK’s plantations, California Oils, Kellogg, Kraft, General Mills, P&G, and Unilever all cited their supplier codes of conduct, which prohibit such behavior. Additionally, Nestlé and Archer Daniels Midland pledged to investigate the allegations.
Cargill defended its supplier. “At this time, KLK is not in violation of any labor laws where they operate nor are we aware of any investigation of KLK’s labor practices,” says Cargill spokeswoman Susan Eich in an e-mail. Eich says Cargill had recently consulted with industry observers and nongovernmental organizations and concluded “there are no active charges or allegations that KLK has violated labor laws or is engaged in slave or child labor.”
KLK and at least 10 companies that buy its oil are members of RSPO, a Kuala Lumpur-based industry group whose stated goal is to provide a framework for “sustainable” production of the commodity. For the roundtable to classify palm oil as “certified sustainable,” growers must undergo third-party assessments verifying the oil is the product of “legal, economically viable, environmentally appropriate, and socially beneficial management and operations.” Some 15 percent of for-profit RSPO members, including P&G, have pledged to sell only sustainably grown palm oil by 2015, KLK’s target year for certifying all of its Indonesian operations. Observers see stronger certified oil demand being created with moves like that of New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who since 2010 has won pledges from portfolio companies in the state’s $153 billion pension fund—including Dunkin’ Donuts (DNKN),Sara Lee (HSH), and Smucker’s (SJM)—to only use sustainable oil.
Even so, organizations such as Greenpeace say the industry’s enforcement of both environmental and human-rights standards remains weak. Just 35 percent of all RSPO member growers have been certified, and none has been decertified for poor performance. “Every time an NGO shines a light into the activities of an RSPO producer, it finds dirt,” says Tomasz Johnson of the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency. “Yet the RSPO hasn’t displayed any ability or intent to exclude anyone.” According to RSPO Secretary General Darrel Webber, the body has never suspended a member for violations of labor standards. In April, the RSPO expanded its standards, adding language to ban all “forms of forced or trafficked labour.”
Much of RSPO’s marketing has been oriented toward European nations and to a lesser extent the U.S. But since those countries consume just 12.5 percent of the world’s palm oil, the organization’s effectiveness is limited. Less than 2 percent of RSPO members are Chinese entities, the first four joining in 2011. The RSPO trademark is unknown in China, where few consumers are aware of the provenance of their palm oil.
Recent surveys suggest there’s potential for change. A 2012 McKinsey survey of 10,000 Chinese consumers in 44 cities found that 44 percent “were willing to pay more for products that are good for the environment,” vs. 33 percent in Britain and 37 percent in the U.S. “The environmental impact, the pollution, and eco-damage are so serious that people have more direct and greater concern over this than their counterparts in Europe and America,” says Ma Jun, founding director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs. Chinese consumer interest in product safety and the environment, however, has yet to bring greater attention to labor standards. Just 5 percent of Chinese consumers polled said concern over labor conditions influences their purchases, according to a 2009 Ruder Finn Asia study.
As the Chinese middle class continues to swell, palm oil will become a fixture in more and more Chinese lives. Adam, the 19-year-old who fled the PT 198 plantation in 2010, says he hopes shoppers like Luo Xiaohua ask themselves a simple question when they consider which oil to buy: “Is there slavery in this?”
The investigation was supported by Humanity United and the Nathan Cummings Foundation.