When I read stories about the exploitation of children in global agribusiness, I get furious because they never get to root causes. This story about the widespread use of child labor on Indonesian palm oil plantations owned by a Singapore-based conglomerate is a good example. Amnesty International discovered the kids working, the Singapore company is now making claims it will stop that, but of course there is nothing really forcing it to. Nowhere in any of this is who is demanding such low-cost palm oil that children are employed to produce it. And that’s the industrial consumers of Indonesian palm oil. Some of those are in China and India, others in the US and Europe. What the global network of capitalists have done though is outsource so much and create such complex and opaque supply chains that they can claim no responsibility for anything that happens. Yet if the cost went up or supplies fell short, you can bet they would be deeply involved in the production process to increase supply or find new supplies entirely. They get away with see, hearing, and speaking no evil about their supply chains because we let them. If we don’t want kids laboring on palm oil plantations, we have to create legal consequences for the American companies buying that oil. That will go very far to solve the problem, once their bottom line and assets are threatened.
And I certainly realize that of all the horrors now facing us as a nation, not to mention the planet, the experiences of Indonesian child laborers are not very high on your list, nor do you think that there is anything we can do. In the immediate term, that’s of course correct. But if we don’t articulate our policy preferences with serious proposals, we will never solve the problem once we do escape this period.