Abuse of workers’ human rights at oil palm plantations

Down to Earth 87, December 2010

The story of an oil palm plantation worker in Kalimantan.

"The longer we worked, the deeper we got into debt"

This is the story of Suroso, who spent four and half months working at an oil palm plantation in Bulungan District, East Kalimantan. The information was gathered at an interview which took place at the Sawit Watch1 office, in Bogor, West Java, in early November 2010. At the time, Sawit Watch was preparing a report to Indonesia's Human Rights Commission on the problems faced by oil palm plantation workers.


The promises

Wanting to improve his situation, Suroso, a villager from Mlarang in Central Java's Purworejo district, decided to try registering as an oil palm plantation worker through a "contractor" middleman. This middleman lived in a neighbouring village and had been tasked by his boss to find as many workers as possible.

The idea of becoming an oil palm plantation worker was prompted by  remarks made by the boss: that it was easy to make money in Kalimantan. "You can easily make Rp 100,000 [around US$11] a day - even  the lazy ones who don't put a lot of effort in can make that much - if you apply yourself you could definitely make more than that." Another consideration for Suroso was extra money needed for sending his daughter to secondary school.

The potential plantation workers were also promised that they would receive a wage of Rp 400,000 per hectare, they would be transferred by plane to their place of work, and they would be provided with school facilities, places of worship and comfortable accommodation. Their work as 'plantation pioneers'2also wouldn't be hard - they would merely be asked to chop down wood a couple of centimetres thick.

Thirteen people from Suroso's village registered with the contractor. There were also seven relatives of the contractor who came along to become plantation workers and whose presence convinced the others that the work situation would be good for all.

They travelled from Purworejo to Surabaya by bus, then took the ferry to Samarinda. Throughout the eight-hour journey from Purworejo to Surabaya they were given neither food nor drink. They only received food upon reaching Tanjung Perak harbour in Surabaya.

When they arrived in Samarinda, they went by car to Bulungan harbour, and from there by speed boat to Sekatak where a company car was waiting for them. They were then taken a long distance by car, deep into the plantation - and it seemed that this was done deliberately so they wouldn't know the way back out.


The reality

The reality at the plantation was nothing like what Suroso and the others had been promised by the company. The plantation land was still bare, with just tree stumps remaining. They also had to build their own living quarters or 'camp'. Items needed for housing and work equipment, such as tarpaulins (for tents), outboard lamps, petroleum lamps, mats for sleeping, gloves, machetes, etc were provided by the company but calculated as debt against the wage which would be paid later.

After just three days of working at the plantation Suroso wanted to leave his job as he realised was being cheated. Unfortunately, he could not get out as the main road was quite a distance from the plantation. Security staff employed by the company ensured that no workers could escape, as they often tried. Some managed to leave but others got caught by the plantation company and were made to return.



PT Sanjung Makmur

The company in Suroso's account is located in Sekatak sub-district, Bulungan district, East Kalimantan. It has concession rights over nearly 20,000 ha and has recently planted 2,300 ha, made up of 236 ha smallholder plantations and 2,064 ha core plantation3 under the nucleus/smallholder estate model.

A number of Indonesian NGOs, among them Elsam, Pil-Net, Demos and HuMa have stated that the company is one of twelve which have committed human rights violations.4

In addition, the population of Sekatak have submitted claims against PT Sanjung Makmur. Their crops were harvested and they were evicted from their land by the company without prior negotiation with the land owners.


Plantation pioneers

The first task the new 'plantation pioneers' were given was to clear the plantation land of bushes and grass before planting the oil palms. Their group consisted of the 13 villagers that had set out together. They worked one area of 60 hectares for around 48 days for a fixed payment of 12 million Rupiah. This means that their work was only calculated at Rp 200,000 per hectare. From that, 10 million Rupiah was deducted by the company as payment of their debt (shelter, tools, equipment etc) and the rest was divided between the workers, meaning that each of them only received around Rp 150,000 for the whole job - not nearly enough to live on.

During four months of work at the palm oil plantation, only once could they send money to their families back home - and only then after they borrowed Rp 1 million each from the company. Of this, Pak Suroso sent Rp 600,000 to his familiy for the costs of celebrating the end of Ramadan in September: he needed the rest for his own daily living costs.

After spending a long time at the plantation without knowing when they would be able to escape, Suroso and his younger brother found a way out. They met staff working for an international organisation of wildlife observers who were conducting a survey on the impact of oil palm plantations on forest wildlife in East Kalimantan. With the help of these researchers they managed to escape to Balikpapan and were subsequently put in touch with friends at Sawit Watch who took their case to the Human Rights Commission.

According to Suroso, many palm oil plantation companies treat their plantation workers in this fashion in East Kalimantan. He is just one of a few people who managed to escape from the abuse in the oil palm plantation. Suroso hopes his friends who remain at the plantation in Berau district can be saved.

Legal Analysis by Sawit Watch

In a factsheet titled "Slavery in the oil palm plantations of East Kalimantan" Sawit Watch says what Suroso and other workers experience amounts to slavery. The method used by these companies is to trap people in debt so they are forced to continue working for the loan providers.

There are several legal provisions that have been violated by the companies, including the Constitution (especially article 28I on the right not to be tortured); the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (ratified by Indonesia’s Law no. 39/1999); the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ratified by Law no. 12/2006); the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ratified through Law no. 11/2006); and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (ratified by Law no. 5/1998).


  1. Sawit Watch is the Indonesian NGO network working on oil palm issues.
  2. Workers brought in to open plantations in new areas
  3. Tribun Kaltim. ‘Penanaman Perdana Plasma Perkebunan Kelapa Sawit’. 26/Oct/10.
  4. ELSAM. Komnas HAM didesak membentuk tim pencari fakta pelanggaran HAM yang dilakukan perusahaan kelapa sawit. 8/Nov/10. See statement on http://www.elsam.or.id/new/elsam_v2.php?id=718&lang=in&act=view&cat=c/302