Beyond Health and Safety: The Struggle of the Alienated Body and the Emergence of New Forms of Worker Organization on Palm Oil Plantation

sSince the colonial era, health has been an integral part of labor control, as seen on palm oil plantations. Today, these agri-capitalist factories, operating in multinational contexts, continue to benefit from this mechanism of control, degrading workers’ bodies to machines subject to efficient productivity schemes. But the human body – like nature itself – reveals a limit that, when transgressed, becomes a source of contestation and revolt, argues Salma Rizkya in her contribution to BG’s “Allied Grounds” text series, by examining the potential of unions to organize workers.

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One morning, six union officials and I visit Een (60) as promised. She was injured in a work accident. Her leg got stuck on a wheel of a dump truck – uh, let’s say a workers’ transport – after she jumped from it. The panicked foreman sent her to the nearest clinic. Unfortunately, the clinic did not recognize her social security or insurance account. So now, in addition to the physical pain she is experiencing, she is also plagued by the high cost of medical treatment. To rub salt in the wound, her leave is only for two days. With no alternative but destitution, she painfully forced her leg back to work.

Living surrounded by palm oil plantations, Een and nearly a third of the women in her kampung (literally village) are shackled by similar health problems. The monoculture giant grabs their land and exploits their bodies as cheap casual labor to encourage nature to produce more, such as applying fertilizer, spraying agrochemicals and often weeding for the past decade. They are outsourced with high daily targets under a lack of employment and health benefits. This tiring work slowly damaged their health.

For Een, her body is no longer hers. She becomes a worn-out machine whose purpose is to optimize nature’s production. She carries 15 liters of agrochemicals on her back, which must be refilled 8 to 13 times to reach the daily target. The strong smell of the agrochemicals causes dizziness, itching and vomiting. The pain in her leg throbs as she traverses the cliffs, swamps and peat bogs. Her black nails and skin rashes told us everything. But no one cares about her reproductive health, because she is just a machine.

Her family’s health is also in danger because of poor waste management. The agrochemical waste is absorbed into the soil and (should) flow into the waste pond. But more often it flows into the ditch connected to the river, which is her family’s daily source of water. An NGO-led investigation revealed that the company is responsible for numerous children in her kampung suffering from skin diseases. In response, the company admited its guilt by calling the problem a “disaster.” But Een knew it was never a “disaster”; it was all caused by the company.

Body of evidence

Beyond Een’s problems, the expansion of palm oil plantations has caused health problems for 43 women workers in Indonesia and Malaysia, according to research conducted by TPOLS in Indonesia and Malaysia in 2022-2023 (still unpublished). Agrochemical intensive cultivation poisons workers who don’t know the risk of this strange stuff. Gradually, this has caused long-term illnesses such as cancer and Parkinson’s disease. This also affected the community living around the plantations, who became casual workers, buruh ulang alik (lit. “commuter workers”), outsourced with minimal labor rights and absent from the union organizing agenda. And it’s not just the agrochemicals that cause the disease. No, virtually everything on palm oil plantations takes place under very painful conditions.

First of all, workers’ health issues are framed as “occupational safety and health,” which refers to norms that arrange standards of a healthy and safe workplace to minimize losses for workers and employers. This means that workers should receive health protection and facilities that meet occupational health and safety standards. To ensure this, the RSPO (Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil) has adapted existing standards into principles and criteria for a sustainable palm oil chain. The RSPO Principles and Criteria on Safety and Health are based on three themes, namely on Prosperity (3.6), People (6.7), and Planet (pestisida dalam 7.2), which marks the importance of the health value of workers in the global palm oil industry supply chain.

But the fight for safety and health is not over. The intertwined political affairs between the company and the state manipulate the potential benefits for workers by prioritizing interests of capital. The norms operate on post-Fordist capitalist realism, which promotes lean production through flexibility and cuts off corporate responsibility for the reproduction of workers’ health. Workers are alienated and do not have equal bargaining power. Whether they like it or not, workers individualize their collective illness and force their bodies to produce harder in order to secure their jobs.

Multi-layered collage: Aerial images of palm oil plantation grids; hands, heads and tools of palm oil plantation workers trapped by these grids; plastic bottle of a palm oil plantation product: sunflower oil. Artwork: Colnate Group, 2023 (cc by nc)
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2023 (cc by nc)

By arguing that palm oil plantation workers struggle to show us the concrete negative impacts of agri-capital accumulation that alienates workers from their bodies and environment, I am contesting the accumulation of health problems through the means of research and reporting. In this field note, I will show that the palm oil labor process alienates workers to exploit nature with multiple alien inputs that also harm their bodies. The alienated body bears the accumulation of risk as part of its responsibility until it becomes ill and is discarded. Over the years, this condition has been reproduced by colonial-style labor control with toxic cultures of productivity, offshoring risks to social security/health systems, and trade unionism.

I also suggest a new way for palm oil plantation unions to break out of the limitations of unionism by understanding the broader implications of occupational health and safety for workers in a kampung. Usually inhabited by social communities, usually of the same ethnicity and with close kinship ties, the term in this study refers to a settlement outside the plantation area. Using labor feminism, unions’ study of workers’ bodies is an important step in redefining exploitative labor relations that affect the body and the environment. This could open up new possibilities for spatial organizing among workers in plantations and kampungs.

The Palm Oil 101: Alienated bodies inside the plantation

First, I would like to address the conditions of palm oil workers’ health as embodied in their work. One of the classic studies of the plantation koolie – a term for indentured labor – by Ann Stoler found that health was a part of labor control. In 1912, the high mortality rate among workers was due to malnutrition. In the years that followed, the mortality rate was still high due to endemic diseases such as dysentery, malaria, and tropical ulcers. Ignored by the company and medical treatment. It was a natural selection for the work force.

Centuries have passed, but as Een’s story tells us, the palm oil plantations still haunt workers with disease, illness, and death. Workers are no longer subject to indentured servitude in the traditional sense, but their working conditions are becoming increasingly flexible, to the point where they no longer have contracts that protect their rights to health and safety. Vulnerability as an integral part of flexible work creates the basis for over-exploitation: workers are confronted with high piecework targets that ignore complicated circumstances that endanger their bodies. At first they comply. And why? To keep their jobs. Worse, they are often scapegoated for not following rules and being negligent.

Beyond safety and health ideas: Articulating safety and health rules of the game

Beyond the norms and sustainability of the palm oil chain campaign, the powerful grip of capitalism is branded on the bodies of Een and her friends. To my naked eyes, I can see their blackish nail tips, dry palms, black keloids, blood-red eyeballs, limping feet, and various wounds that don’t heal properly. My focus was on what and how occupational health and safety works on palm oil plantations. Were we being fooled by fictitious standards? Or have such standards benefited workers?

To answer this, the dialog between six union officials in Een’s house could give us their insight. The union officials agree that occupational safety and health is linked to “audit.” The “audit” came with the spread of RSPO membership, which requires companies to comply with its standard. It is a ritual where companies suddenly provide expensive safety and health items: hospitals, doctors, training, hazard communication, banning dangerous pesticides, providing sanitation, decontamination facilities and free personal protective equipment (PPE). Have these things actually happened? Remarkably, this audit seems to consist of workers performing a “script” for the auditors, demonstrating a charade of how safe and healthy palm oil work is.

In the eyes of union officials, occupational safety and health also becomes viable through a chalkboard of safety symbols and slogans, prayer-like moral imperatives repeated at every morning meeting, and celebratory occasions such as “Occupational Safety and Health Month” or the “Zero Accident Award.” During the dialogue between the union officials in Een’s house, some also talked about segmented social security and insurance. But no one talked about better health care for workers. You even wonder: Do we deserve more?

It’s the union that pointed out that the root of the occupational safety and health problems is that companies are not responsible for preventing accidents and then outsource rehabilitation to other institutions. There was a case where a female sprayer complained of severe back pain. Union officials accompanied her to a clinic. Due to limited facilities, she was referred to a hospital 30 kilometers away. The doctor diagnosed her with scoliosis caused by heavy back strain. The union would then register the case as an “occupational disease” so that she could receive free treatment and rehabilitation, and if the disability is permanent, the worker would receive compensation. However, doctors who are not specialists in occupational diseases don’t have the ability to diagnose this. So the doctor can only give a recommendation for a job transfer letter.

So, what happened in this case? With the union’s help, the letter was submitted to the company. As a result, the worker was transferred. However, there was no general evaluation and no concern about rehabilitation or care costs for the family. In addition, no one is concerned about the worker’s future health.

We are on the same boat: Potential class struggle on safety and health issues

Through the bodies of palm oil plantation workers, we only know that everyone who lives in this system is dying. This is just the tip of the iceberg, because the problem lies deep inside the critically alienated body, fragmented with different gender, cultural, spatial and occupational identities, looking for something to make it feel alive again.

Thus, the union came up with ideas to escalate workers’ struggles by claiming occupational health and safety as a way to achieve workers’ welfare. However, there are two major challenges in trying to mobilize workers: First, the fragmented identities of workers create a variety of vulnerabilities, which then raises the question of how the union can turn these vulnerabilities into a collective issue around which to mobilize for class struggle.

This reminds us that even though both face the same problems caused by palm oil plantations, there is always an imaginary boundary between the permanent workers who live inside the housing and the casual workers who live outside. It is clear from their gestures, that the men from the kampung are more reluctant to share their idea with the union, thinking that they have more advantages by siding with the company and not feeling the ugly truth of the palm oil segregation that has separated them from resources, caused health devastation, and silently killed them a thousand times over. In a whisper, Een’s friends asked curiously, “Why is there a union in the kampung?”

Faced with such questions, the union officials swallow a smile, implicitly sharing the idea of the importance of workers’ collective action, which should be organized by unions that share the same identity as a vulnerable working class with the exploited body under the palm oil plantations. They patiently arrange their idea – not too provocative and not too agitating – by an emotional approach through the health of the body as an essential door to this spatial organizing agenda. By following this idea, the transformation of collective health problems becomes an important part of escalating the labor struggle in the oil palm plantations.

In the end, our discussion in Een’s home unofficially ended with inviting us to eat fish that her husband had caught from the polluted river. It is a bitter irony that instead of being angry, we can only laugh at the bullshit existence of the corporation that is damaging everything we once knew: the body, nature, and the relationship between us.

The corporations have built strong borders that have made us see only differences between each other, like enemies from birth. But maybe there is a reason to be grateful, because whatever torment the corporations have inflicted on us, we can make this journey to follow our bodies, to identify what caused our illness, to unite behind a struggle, and to determine for ourselves who we are supposed to be.

Editor’s note: This article, written with support by Alvin Waworuntu and Rizal Assalam, is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series. For more content, visit the “Allied Grounds” website. Take a look: https://berlinergazette.de/projects/allied-grounds

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