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Malaysian palm oil giant hit with forced labor allegations

FILE - In this Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2009, file photo, a worker works with palm oil fruits at a collection center in Dangkil, outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. On Tuesday, July 7, 2020, anti-trafficking organization Liberty Shared said it filed a petition to bantheimportation of palm oil produced by Malaysia-based Sime Darby Berhad, one of the worlds largest suppliers, saying it found evidence of child and forced labor on plantations that supply American food and cosmetics companies. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
FILE - In this Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2009, file photo, a worker works with palm oil fruits at a collection center in Dangkil, outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. On Tuesday, July 7, 2020, anti-trafficking organization Liberty Shared said it filed a petition to bantheimportation of palm oil produced by Malaysia-based Sime Darby Berhad, one of the worlds largest suppliers, saying it found evidence of child and forced labor on plantations that supply American food and cosmetics companies. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian) (AP2009)

MINNEAPOLIS – 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 Plantation 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 Jepson 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.

Sime Darby’s chief communications officer, Eliza Mohamed, said her company only learned about the petition this week and had not seen the full, 50-page report. The palm oil giant hoped to work with Liberty Shared to investigate the allegations and, if warranted, to take corrective action, she said.

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.

“Over the years, we have made genuine progress in improving our labor practices with the help of a multitude of partners and NGOs,” said Mohamed of Sime Darby, acknowledging the challenges that accompany the industry's complex supply chains.

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.