Failed Oversight Enables Labor, Environmental Harm
Four European development banks are financing a palm oil company in the Democratic Republic of Congo that is violating workers' rights and dumping untreated waste, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The company, Feronia, will hold a shareholders meeting with the four banks in London on November 25, 2019 to discuss the company's environmental and social track record.
The 95-page report, "A Dirty Investment: European Development Banks' Link to Abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Palm Oil Industry," documents that investment banks owned by Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom are failing to protect the rights of people working and living on three plantations they finance. Human Rights Watch found that Feronia and its subsidiary in Congo, Plantations et Huileries du Congo, S.A. (PHC), exposes workers to dangerous pesticides, dumps untreated industrial waste into local waterways, and engages in abusive employment practices that result in extreme poverty wages.
Christian Lokola (pseudonym), age 30, has worked on Lokutu plantation for three years. Each day, six days a week, Lokola sprays 300 palm trees with pesticides. He earns US$1.60 per day if he completes his task for all 26 working days in one month. The training manuals PHC distributes to workers like Lokola describe precautions workers must take to protect the environment, but do little to explain the health risks to them.
"They didn't warn me of sexual weakness [impotence], if they'd say it, we'd protest," Lokola said. "They told us we need to protect ourselves, but they didn't tell us what the risks are … We have discussed this a lot, a lot with the [company] doctors. The [company] doctor in Lokutu told us: 'The work isn't good but it's better than unemployment.'"
Dominique Azayo Elenga is the customary leader of the Nyanzeke grouping, which includes the village of Boloku, which has several hundred residents, five kilometers from Yaligimba plantation. Following unsuccessful talks with company representatives, Azayo filed a formal complaint in November 2018 with PHC's grievance system alleging that the company's untreated waste had contaminated Boloku's only source of drinking water.
"We went to Feronia, we had informed them that their dirty water has contaminated our water, how are we going to drink water. We were getting sick because of this water. They are informed but no solution has been found," Azayo said.
When Human Rights Watch interviewed him in February, the company was still dumping untreated waste and had not provided alternative drinking water sources. The PHC director general told Human Rights Watch in April that he was not aware of any such complaints on his plantations.
"My population [in Boloku] uses water which has dirt from the factory," Azayo said. "They're using it. I discussed it with Feronia but nothing has been done about it yet. That was in September 2018."
Gabrielle Musiata (pseudonym) has worked as a fruit picker in Boteka for more than six years. She and her husband both work in the plantation to support their six children, but even so they still struggle to provide for their family. "We suffer a lot. We eat very irregularly. Cassava leaves, palm nuts, there is not much."
Musiata said she earned between 12,000 FC (US$7.30) and 15,000 FC ($9.10) per month, and that she did her work barefoot and barehanded, as the company did not provide protective equipment. "We are many women," Musiata said. "We don't benefit from anything. We work without boots, without gloves – with our bare hands. Sometimes the fruits [we have to pick up] fall into cows' and peoples' excrement."
A former manager who supervised more than 200 plantation workers in Boteka separately told Human Rights Watch that women were mainly employed as day laborers to pick fruit in the plantation and that they are paid 30 FC ($0.01) for every sack of 10 kilos they gather. The former manager estimated that they wouldn't be able to gather as much as 15 sacks daily. He said the maximum a woman can make per month is $9.10.