Malaysian palm oil giant counters sexual harassment claims

National News

One of the world’s largest palm oil companies said allegations of sexual harassment on one of its plantations already had been withdrawn and the case closed when it looked into an Associated Press story about abuses suffered by women helping harvest palm oil fruit in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Female workers from various companies quoted in the Nov. 24 story were identified only by partial names or nicknames, and their locations were not disclosed since previous reports about labor abuses in the multibillion-dollar palm oil industry have sometimes resulted in retaliation against workers.

Sime Darby Plantation, which supplies palm oil to some of the top Western food and cosmetic companies, said Monday it tracked down and questioned two female workers based on details in the AP story mirroring that of an April 2019 sexual harassment complaint made to the company and withdrawn two months later.

In revisiting the case, Sime Darby said one of the women it approached did not want to reopen the matter and denied “offensive statements” ever had been made to her. A second woman identified as the target of harassment denied she accused her boss of being verbally abusive, the company said. It said neither employee was coerced or intimidated.

The man accused of making comments like “Come sleep with me. I will give you a baby” left his position voluntarily, said Adeline Amanda Jaiyaseelan, the head of employee and industrial relations, adding that Sime Darby stood ready to provide counseling and access to other assistance if the case is reopened.

Malaysia and Indonesia produce 85 percent of the $65 billion global supply of palm oil, a cheap, versatile oil that is found not only in half the products on supermarket shelves but also in most cosmetic brands. The AP interviewed more than three dozen women and girls from at least 12 companies, finding that female workers take on some of the industry’s most difficult and dangerous jobs and also endure sexual harassment and abuse, including rape.

Most women are too ashamed to speak out about sexual harassment and abuse, and the AP found that even cases that are reported are sometimes ignored by companies or dropped by police. Fear of retribution is high for many women on remote plantations, especially those who are dependent on company-owned housing.

“The work we are currently trying to do now, basically, is to make sure we have the available channels and grievance mechanisms in place, and that people are aware of it and aren’t afraid to use it,” said Rashyid Redza, head of Group Sustainability. “Quite a lot of time has been spent trying to raise awareness around these issues.”

The Malaysian Palm Oil Council and the Indonesian Palm Oil Association said they oppose any form of sexual harassment and take all allegations seriously.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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