Raid on Sumatran Official Reveals Use of Slave Labor at Palm Oil Plantation
- A district chief in Sumatra could face human trafficking charges after it was discovered he had imprisoned 48 men in his compound who worked without pay on his palm oil plantation.
- While police and other government authorities have been reluctant to declare it a case of modern day slave labor, advocacy groups say the evidence against Terbit Rencana Perangin Angin, the district chief of Langkat in the province of North Sumatra, are indisputable.
- Terbit also faces charges of corruption (the raid on his compound was associated with an allegation of bribery) and illegal possession of wildlife (the raid also discovered an orangutan and other protected species kept as animals of company).
- As the case has captured national attention, watchdog groups say the problem of labor violations in the palm oil industry is widespread and have called for the swift passage of a bill aimed at strengthening the protection of workers.
JAKARTA — A sting of anti-corruption officers in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province has uncovered evidence that a powerful local official allegedly used slave labor at his palm oil plantation.
Agents of KPK, Indonesia’s anti-corruption commission, found 48 men locked in prohibited cells during a January 18 raid on the residential compound of Terbit Rencana Perangin Angin, the Langkat district chief. Police noted at least one of the men had bruises.
Terbit, who was wanted on separate corruption allegations, was not home during the incident but turned himself in to authorities the following day. He denied allegations that he was holding the men captive to work without pay on his palm oil plantation.
But the evidence says otherwise, say workers’ rights advocates.
Anis Hidayah, executive director of migrant worker advocacy NGO Migrant Care, said detainees were forced to work daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., received only two meals a day and were subjected to physical assault. .
“These palm oil workers would also not receive any wages at all and would not receive proper meals,” she said. noted.
The detainees have since been returned to the care of their families, while Migrant Care filed a report against Terbit with the national human rights commission.
No salary, but extra pudding
In one video uploaded to his wife’s YouTube channel last year, Terbit claimed the men caged in his home were drug addicts undergoing rehabilitation. (As District Head, or bupatihe has no authority to detain anyone.)
Terbit, who is also one of the richest bupatis in Indonesia, with reported assets of 85 billion rupees ($5.9 million), said it built the cells 10 years ago and the men locked inside came voluntarily for rehab . He also said he employed some of them for his palm oil operations; the video showed some of the men unloading palm fruits from trucks and processing them in a mill.
One of the men, identifying himself as Terang, said in the video that he spent a year in rehab and thanked Terbit “because I recovered and am now employed.”
Another of the detainees, Jefri Sembiring, who spent four months locked up before being released following the KPK raid, said he felt his life had returned to normal, tell the local media that “I was comfortable there”.
His wife, Hana, said she hoped the detention center would not be closed because she wanted her husband to continue his recovery there.
Testimonies like these, police say, make it difficult to conclude that the men were subjected to modern-day slavery.
“We see that their parents gave them up voluntarily, and they also consented [to being locked up]national police spokesman Ahmad Ramadhan said at a January 25 press conference. “Some of them are employed at the palm oil mill belonging to the district chief with the aim of providing them with skills that could be useful to them once they get out of the rehabilitation place.”
The police also justified the lack of pay for the men’s work, saying those who worked were rewarded with food. “They don’t get paid as workers because they are detained,” Ahmad said. “But we give them pudding and extra food.”
“Exploit the victims”
The police’s ambivalence about treating the case as a slavery case matches the reluctance of other government agencies to strongly condemn Terbit’s actions.
The National Narcotics Agency (BNN), which oversees drug treatment centers across Indonesia, has confirmed that the facility of the Terbit complex was not an approved rehabilitation center. Yet, while the BNN district office inspected it in 2017, it did not shut down the site then, for reasons still unknown.
The national rights commission, meanwhile, warned against declaring the case slavery.
“We want to see the big picture, if it’s true that there was modern slavery here or if it was just a traditionally run rehabilitation center,” he added. . noted Choirul Anam, member of the commission. He suggested it could conceivably be a rehabilitation center if inmates had access to medical care.
But legal experts outside the Indonesian government say there is no doubt that this is a case of forced labor.
“The goal was to exploit the victims” noted Ninik Rahayu, jurist and former national mediator. “The victims had no other choice. Their work was used. So it’s slavery.
She said Terbit was exploiting the vulnerable position of drug addicts, making it a case of “human slavery”, for which the district chief should be charged with human trafficking.
Maidina Rahmawati, researcher at the Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (ICJR), Okayclaiming that the fundamental facts – that the men were deprived of their liberty and unpaid for their work – clearly pointed to a case of exploitation.
She added that the positive testimonies given by some of the men and their family members may have been coerced from them under intimidation.
After the raid, the BNN carried out drug tests on 11 of the 48 detainees and the 11 tested negative, while the others refused to be tested.
Widespread labor violations
Sawit Watch, an NGO that tracks violations in the palm oil industry, says the Langkat case is just the tip of the iceberg in an industry where labor violations are widespread.
“It’s because of the lack of oversight,” Sawit Watch executive director Achmad Surambo told Mongabay. “The number of labor inspectors in the plantation industry is very low.”
In 2012, Sawit Watch uncovered a case in which people had been trafficked from Sumatra to work on plantations in Borneo. They were kept locked in a house and only released in the morning to work.
“In the evening they returned to the house and the door was locked,” Achmad said. “It was allowed due to lack of supervision, especially in a remote area [like this].”
Some 7 million Indonesians are employed in the palm oil industry, according to Data70% of whom work without a contract and with little or no protection.
“What we want are humane working conditions,” Achmad said, pointing to legislation currently in parliament that would help improve protections for palm oil workers.
The bill is on the register of priority laws for passage, but progress has been slow. The Langkat case, and the public outcry it has generated, should be a wake-up call for parliament to quickly pass the bill, Achmad said.
“I think this issue should be discussed in public so that this kind of case does not happen again,” he said. “What is happening in Langkat is very degrading for people, where their freedom is taken away. This only happened in the past, so why do we still find it in modern times? »
Illegal possession of wild animals
For Terbit, the troubles are just beginning. In addition to the corruption charges that have already been brought against him by the KPK, for which he could be imprisoned for five years, he also faces possible charges of human trafficking (up to 15 years) and possession. Illegal Wildlife Species (seven years).
During the KPK’s raid on the Terbit compound, officers found seven endangered animals, all of which are protected by Indonesian conservation law and therefore illegal to keep in captivity.
The North Sumatra provincial conservation agency, or BBKSDA, confiscated the animals on January 25 and transferred them to wildlife rescue and rehabilitation facilities. They include a Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii), a black-crested macaque (Cynopithecus niger) and two Bali starlings (Leucopsar rothschildi), all listed as critically endangered, as well as a crested eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus) and two common mynas (Gracula religiosa).
Banner image: Terbit Rencana Perangin Angin, the district chief of Langkat in North Sumatra province, standing in front of the off-limits cells where his palm oil workers are locked up. Image courtesy of Tiorita Rencana’s YouTube channel.
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