The perilous life of female palm oil plantation workers in Papua

The perilous life of female palm oil plantation workers in Papua

Did you know that in Papua, the line of inheritance of customary land generally follows the male lineage, which leaves indigenous women with no ownership rights over the land? Even so, women are still given the responsibility to manage and utilize customary land as a source of fulfilling their sustenance. All of this becomes problematic when customary land experiences commodification. Too often, palm oil companies come to the villages, offering promises of welfare and progress, with one condition 'give up your land for me'.

As part of International Women’s Day, I had a conversation with Bentala Rakyat, a Jakarta-based non-profit organization that focuses on studying, advocating & documenting issues concerning the rights of indigenous peoples, regarding the many other challenges indigenous women face from the palm oil industry. Here is what I learned.

Men make the decisions, women suffer the consequences

Papua concessions and mills

In the past ten years, palm oil has rapidly expanded in Papua. There are now over 1,879,434 hectares of industrial concessions in Papua, just slightly less than the size of Wales.

While deforestation impacts have been widely reported the often silent impacts of this expansion on indigenous women has received far less attention.

In the process of acquiring customary lands into monoculture lands, women are rarely involved and their opinions aren't considered in any of the negotiation capacity, because ownership rights are in the hands of men. After experiencing marginalization and exclusion from the start of the process of transferring land rights, indigenous women in Papua lose access to forests and natural resources due to changes in the landscape. In the end, they don't have much choice but to be thrown in as plantation precariats under dangerous working conditions.

On the plantation, women are generally employed in the nursery division. Their main task is to take care of the palm oil seeds until they are ready to be planted. men are almost never assigned to this division, mostly conduct land clearing, traction (production transportation and repair) and logging. This is most likely, due to the general assumption and stereotype about women being more careful and caring.

Long hours, hazardous working conditions

Women workers of oil palm plantation in Papua. Photo: Rassela Malinda

A better pic of women working?

As daily workers, women receive different amounts of wages depending on the number of days they work in a month. If they work full time, which is 25 days in a month, then they will bring home approximately two million rupiah or about 120 US dollars. For the men, they too are expected to work hard with tediously long hours for low wages, yet the difference is the voices of male workers are much more likely to be heard and considered.

Occupational safety and security standards are also another source of danger for women workers in palm oil plantations. Those who work in the nursery division have to constantly deal with dangerous chemicals, especially when it rains, there is a risk that the fertilizer will get into the eyes or skin, which will cause irritation, itching and burning. They don't get safety clothing, other work equipment or health insurance in case of work accidents. The protective masks they must wear should be replaced every 3 days, but in reality, companies rarely provide them regularly to the workers. The workers who have to ask field assistants for masks are slow to communicate this need to the companies. Laborers working at the oil production factory constantly have to work in polluted areas, causing headache and stomach ache.

Remote locations, high risk of sexual assault

Another potential hazard that specifically threatens female workers in palm oil plantations is sexual violence. Palm oil plantations are the most unsafe space for female workers, not only because of their vulnerable working status – as daily workers – but also the potential for sexual violence that follows them everywhere. The lack of security and protection from the companies itself makes for an additional concern for the women working in the fields. It may be said about women everywhere, but the fear of assault and harassment especially in such a remote location and the reality of discrediting and silencing women when reporting such cases is still the primary reason where women do not report. “When your priorities are set, to be able to put food on the table for your family and educate your children, these women have had to put up with a lot of ugly behavior.” said a representative from Bentala Rakyat.

What can be done

The aspirations of the women in Papua. Photo:

The past International Women’s Day was a reminder that we need create affirmative changes in the palm oil industry by including women in leadership positions. This brings more competence and perspective to the table and helps ensure gender equality and safe working conditions to achieve sustainability. But representation alone is not enough. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), between 2012 to 2016, there had been no significant improvement in Papua, especially West Papua, regarding women’s access to justice. "Urgent action is needed to end ongoing human rights violations against indigenous Papuans," the experts said, adding independent monitors and journalists must be allowed access to the region. Therefore the protests usually end without any results and even in some cases the women speaking out have become victims of sexual harassment during these demonstrations.

The network of NGOs working to advocate on this issue have put forth a few recommendations to the government so far, which are 1. Establish effective and strict control mechanisms for all investors in West Papua, and 2. conduct strict punishments to companies, disregarding environmental regulations and rights of indigenous peoples, as recommended during the last UPR of Indonesia in 2012; As palm oil plantations are a strategic commodity for Indonesia, the government should improve oil palm plantations governance in line with the development of these palm oil plantations. It needs to be considered a priority by the government to address the issue of gender in palm oil plantations, where clearly there are still female workers who have almost no legal protection in the workplace. Let's hope all the hard work of those involved from the NGOs to local activists and the female workers themselves can encourage the strengthening of the protection of the human rights of women workers in palm oil plantations.