[11/23/20] – Palm Oil Industry: Profits Over People

Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of a most versatile vegetable oil…Palm Oil. On plantations across the archipelago men and women spend lifetimes toiling in dangerous conditions for, at present, ~$2 per day. As with all cultures rooted in patriarchy, these men and women endure hardships of different natures. Working long hours in fields with predatory supervisors and toxic chemicals creates opportunity for sexual exploitation and infertility for the millions of young and old women working to produce a substance that is found in a wide range of commonly consumed American products. This week, as we spend this holiday staying away from large family gatherings – a cornerstone of Thanksgiving in America, we want to encourage you to consider challenging the notion that we should be thankful for the production of invisible populations and replace it with a sense of urgency to improve living and working conditions for all members of the global supply chain. In this week’s Lecture Spark, we explore the production of Palm Oil in Indonesia through the lens of sociology. Specifically, we explore the social drivers of capitalism, white collar crime, and health inequality.

Download the PowerPoint Lecture Spark for Palm Oil Industry: Profits Over People

Learning Objectives

LO 1: Compare arguments for and against the sustained use of a supply chain model that places profits above human life.

LO 2: Understand the breadth of corruption required to sustain an international trillion-dollar industry that creates demand and products for consumption.

LO 3: Explain how the three main sociological paradigms can be used to investigate the issue of sexual violence, exploitation, and oppression in Palm Oil fields in Indonesia.


Big Cosmetic Brands Silent After Sexual Abuse Allegations on Palm Oil Plantation

An Indonesian teenager was raped on a palm oil plantation that supplies some of the world’s best known cosmetic brands. She says it was her boss who attacked her.

AP probe uncovers abuses in palm oil industry

An invisible workforce of millions of laborers from some of the poorest corners of Asia toil in the palm oil industry, many of them enduring various forms of exploitation, with the most serious abuses including child labor, outright slavery and allegations of rape, an Associated Press investigation has found.

IDIndonesia: The Price of Palm Oil l 101 East

101 East exposes how companies and the government are turning a blind eye to the human cost of palm oil production.

Discussion Questions

Why do these women who experience rape, beatings, and more from their male supervisors stay at their job? How does the culture of capitalism contribute to the reality these women and their families are forced to deal with?

Why might businesses be reluctant to investigate and prosecute these types of offenses that occur among their employees? How is the public image of a company and/or brand related to the success or failure of that business in the marketplace? What lengths would these businesses go to in order to protect their billion-dollar industry?

Who all should be held responsible for the proliferation of sexual violence on plantations that are owned and operated by global companies like L’Oreal, Johnson & Johnson, and Proctor & Gamble? What is the responsibility of the CEO in maintaining the safe working environments, provision of a living wage, and benefits to workers at the point of origin for a product found in almost every food and soap consumed in the United States?

What is the role of American consumers in driving this trend? Why might the media not be inclined to report stories such as this with the same for of the near daily deluge of updates about Kanye West? What is the goal of omitting such stories from the common narrative about the production of our deodorant and Nutella?

What is the role of one’s position in the social stratification of their culture in determining access to quality healthcare? Why is health commodified in so many places across the globe? How does limited access to regular and reliable healthcare cause one to experience health and illness in decidedly different ways?


A _______ sociologist would likely focus their attention on investigating the lived experiences of women working in the Palm Oil plantations to understand how they socially construct their individual realities.
a. Functionalist
b. Constructivist
c. Symbolic-Interactionist
d. Positivist

A _______ sociologist would be interested in gathering evidence to support theories of how capitalism and competition over scarce resources is at the heart of the degrading and dangerous experiences of women working in the Palm Oil plantations.
a. Symbolic-Interactionist
b. Capitalist
c. Conflict (or Critical Studies)
d. Functionalist

A _______ sociologist would likely argue that – although awful and terrible – the experiences of these women contribute to the stability of a trillion-dollar economy that sustains a great deal of humans on the planet and disruption to this system could create more problems than solutions.
a. Rational-Choice
b. Organizational
c. Functionalist
d. Anarchist

Photo credit: iStockphoto.com/Migin

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