Banks linked to workers’ rights abuses by palm oil company in Congo


A palm oil company in the Democratic Republic of Congo that is violating workers’ rights and dumping untreated waste will hold a shareholders’ meeting with the four European development banks that finance it in London, on November 25, 2019. Feronia will discuss the company’s environmental and social track record, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

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.

“These banks can play an important role promoting development, but they are sabotaging their mission by failing to ensure that the company they finance respects the rights of its workers and communities on the plantations,” said Luciana Téllez, environment and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report.

The development banks have touted the investment as a success story in poverty-stricken rural Congo. But many plantation workers said their low wages left them struggling to feed their families. Many workers are paid less than US$1.90 a day, the threshold for “extreme poverty” as defined by the World Bank.PHC frequently underpays wages and uses temporary contracts that withhold cash benefits, in apparent violation of Congolese law.

The company denied it, but managerial staff on the plantations and workers’ accounts indicate otherwise. Female plantation workers reported the lowest salaries, with a mother of six in Boteka earning as little as US$7.30 per month gathering oil palm fruit.

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 200 people, including more than 100 workers on the company’s three plantations: Boteka in Équateur province, Lokutu in Tshopo province, and Yaligimba in Mongala province. Researchers also interviewed several dozen Congolese public officials and company executives, including Feronia’s former CEO and PHC’s director general in Kinshasa.

The four development banks – Belgian BIO, British CDC Group, German DEG, and Dutch FMO – have invested US$100 million since 2013 in Feronia and PHC. CDC Group, in addition to being an investor, also owns 38 percent of Feronia.

PHC is one of Congo’s top five private employers, with more than 10,000 workers and approximately 100,000 people living on its plantations. The company leases over 100,000 hectares of land from the Congolese government in the northern part of the country.

Workers on the three plantations are exposed to large amounts of hazardous pesticides due to the company’s failure to provide adequate protective equipment, Human Rights Watch found. Researchers interviewed more than 40 workers, ages 25 to 46, who were exposed to pesticides. Two-thirds of the workers interviewed said they had become impotent since they started the job.

PHC’s environmental record also raises concerns about the impact on local communities, Human Rights Watch said. At least two of the company’s palm oil mills dump tons of untreated waste every week, several PHC managerial staff admitted during interviews.

In one plantation, the foul odor pervades workers’ homes next to the open channel where it is dumped. The waste stream flows into a natural pond where women and children bathe and wash cooking utensils. Satellite imagery Human Rights Watch analyzed shows that the pond is connected to a small river.

Residents of a village with several hundred people downstream said that the river was their only source of drinking water. Their community leader filed a complaint with PHC in November 2018, but three months later the company had not taken action to end the untreated waste dumping or provide alternative drinking water sources. (Source: HRW)