Working in an oil palm plantation - a snapshot of one woman's life

Down to Earth No.78, August 2008

Mardiana, better known as Etek, works for PT Agro Masang Perkasa in Agam district, West Sumatra. She has been working there since 1994 and will continue to do so as there are no other jobs she could do to sustain herself and her family. This brief report is based on an interview with Etek during June 2008 in Bogor.

"Before, whenever anything got in my eye, I rubbed it. This is what it's like now - like the eye of a salted fish," she says. Her right eye looks okay, but she can't see out of it any more, since weedkiller accidentally got into it three years ago.

Each morning Etek gets up at around 5.00am for morning prayers, to prepare breakfast and bathe her small children. She has four. You don't hear her say much about her husband. The five of them live in her mother's house along with her sister's family, making ten people altogether.

Then, at around 6.30 she leaves for the company office to sign in and gets to the plantation at around 8.00am. Etek usually has breakfast and chats with her fellow workers, then starts work.

From 8 to 1.00pm Etek works on the plantation, mainly spraying herbicides between the rows of oil palms.

At 1 - 1.30pm she returns home, except on Fridays, when the workers finish at 11 or at noon so that Muslims, especially the men, can go to prayers at the mosque.

After a rest, Etek will gather firewood, do the laundry in the river or fetch water from the river which is quite some distance from her house. In one week, she will usually fetch water three or four times, using a bucket.

Etek also looks after cattle owned by other people. At the moment, she has three cows to tend. Her payment for this is one of every two calves that are born.

The working week at the company is Monday to Friday. On Saturdays and Sundays Etek usually does additional spraying work for small-scale plantation owners in her village to supplement her income.

For every two litres of Roundup mixed with 16 litres of water, the workers can cover two hectares of plantation. Usually they work in pairs and each earn Rp30,000 (US$ 3.25) for the two hectares.

The company pays wages of Rp32,000 (US$3.57) per day. At harvest time, she also gets Rp400 (around 4 cents) per bunch of palm fruits, the same amount whether the bunch is big or small. As a sprayer, she also gets Rp8,000 to buy milk. Initially the company provides safety mask and spray equipment, but it does not provide replacements when these wear out or break. The cost of a new sprayer, or what the workers call a kep, is Rp200,000 (US$ 22) each, and can be paid for by instalments over four months.

There are only three groups of sprayers. Each group has one person in charge and consists of nine or ten people. In one day, each person must cover nine rows or around two hectares.

Although they don't get enough training about the dangers of toxic chemicals, Etek and her friends know not to speak while spraying, until they get to the water tank, where they refill their sprayers. They know that there's the possibility of toxic chemicals entering the body through the mouth.

Apart from an operation on her right eye, Etek's greatest ambition is for her children to get a good education. She thinks her second child is pretty bright and she's trying to find out how she could access grants so the children can continue beyond primary education. 


PT Agro Masang Perkasa

PT Agro Masang Perkasa is a subsidiary of the Wilmar Group, in Pasaman Barat district, West Sumatra. Wilmar Group has 150,000 hectares of oil palm plantations in Sumatra and Kalimantan and currently owns 24 crude palm oil processing mills.1

Wilmar has a poor record on environmental and social impacts and is being challenged by local communities in West Kalimantan, supported by NGOs - see DTE 76-77.

Wilmar International Ltd was established by Martua Sitorus alias Thio Seng Hap and Kuok Khoon Hong in 1991.2 The company's subsidiaries listed on Singapore's Stock Exchange in 2006 had assets valued at US$1.8 billion. Turnover that same year was put at $5.3 billion.3




Main exporters of crude palm oil (CPO) and oil palm products
Company `CPO CPO-derived products
KPN/Wilmar Group 15% 41%
Musimas Group 14% 21%
Sinar Mas Group 14% 5%
Sinar PTPN Group 10%  
Permata Hijau Group 8% 9%
Source: Indonesian Oil Palm Commission4




Roundup is a brand of agricultural herbicide produced by Monsanto, the giant US-based corporation that produces chemical products (pesticides,cosmetics,industrial chemicals and genetically modified seeds5).It is a glyphosate-based herbicide,used on farms and plantations around the globe.6

With growing concern over pesticide use in Europe, Monsanto is pushing its business opportunities in developing countries in Asia and Africa,including Indonesia.7

In 2005,Monsanto agreed to pay the US government fines worth US$1.5 million for breaking anti-bribery laws.The company had paid at least $750,000 to 140 high-ranking Indonesian officials between 1997 and 2002, to secure the release of its products (including GM cotton seeds,and its Roundup,Polaris,and Spark pesticides).8


3 Milieudefensie. Et. Al. 2007. Policy, practice, pride and prejudice
4 Bisnis Indonesia. 3/May/07. 'PE & kuota ekspor beratkan industri minyak sawit'
6 For further background see DTE 66
8 and