They rose early in the morning to toil away at the eucalyptus plantation, planting seeds and spreading fertilizer. At night, they returned to barracks provided by their company, a cluster of small rooms that housed up to six people each—often whole families.
Sleeping in rows within the cramped space, 40 families survived on weak electricity and one shared bathroom. But most alarmingly, among the workers were children, some tasked to spray weed poison without protective gear.
These were the findings of a VICE World News exposé in May. But months after reporters shed light on the harsh working conditions on the eucalyptus plantation, the cramped barracks have been dismantled, a direct result of the report, say NGO workers. The company moved its workers to a nearby village—though the fate of its underage workers remains unknown.
The relocation happened in July, just one week after company personnel visited the barracks and questioned villagers who live near the plantation, said an NGO staffer who works closely with the local community.
"After the report was released, I received information that several company officers met with the villagers [in June] and asked who informed [the media] of the whereabouts of the barracks," they told VICE World News last week, requesting anonymity for fear of reprisal from Toba Pulp, the multimillion-dollar company that runs the plantation.
“The villagers said, ‘Isn't the barracks already known to many people? Then why should it be hidden?’”
Owned by billionaire Sukanto Tanoto, Toba Pulp Lestari is one of Indonesia’s largest paper and pulp companies, located in North Sumatra. Over the years, it has been criticized for polluting the environment and land grabbing from indigenous groups. However, the harsh living conditions of workers at Toba Pulp hadn’t received much public attention until they were published in May.
In a statement released on May 13, just over a week after the report was published, Toba Pulp addressed what it described as “recent allegations made by online media” and denied that it employed minors.
“We have investigated and found this to be categorically untrue,” said the statement. “We have a clear and firm policy against any form of child labour, and our policy applies to all our suppliers.”
“We are committed to providing a safe, productive and conducive work environment.”
In the statement, Jandres Silalahi, director of Toba Pulp, also claimed that the housing facilities provided by the company are “livable and child-friendly,” with amenities such as clean water, a kitchen, and a bathroom.
“We also opened learning centres for children of workers so they have equitable access to education”, he said.
However, when VICE World News visited the plantation earlier this year, reporters found workers living in cramped and squalid conditions. Employees at the plantation did not have insurance, and were often forced to work extra acres of land that exceeded agreed-upon workloads, pressured by contractors keen to keep their prices low and retain business with Toba Pulp.
In their May statement, Toba Pulp said that they would be increasing its “support” to their contractors to improve their labor practices, as well as getting “a credible labor rights expert for assurance.”
“If any instances of non-compliance with regulations and relevant commitments are found, they will be addressed immediately,” it said.
Most alarming, however, was that reporters found children under 18 among the labourers at Toba Pulp’s plantation—school dropouts supporting their families, with no access to education at the site. VICE World News spoke with five underage workers doing hazardous jobs like spraying poison. They told reporters that they were instructed to hide from visitors.
Regardless of their age, all workers earned the same wage of $6 a day—and even in their best months, earnings still fell well below North Sumatra’s minimum monthly wage of $165.
Adi, a villager living near the barracks, whom VICE World News has chosen to anonymize for his own safety, said on Tuesday that the workers were relocated to a row of houses in Simare, a village about two kilometers away. The row of houses, which appeared to be permanent structures, seemed of a better standard than the barracks, he said, but noted that they may still be overcrowded.
“The demolition of the barracks was triggered because of the report… I hope that media exposures are carried out more often so that more people know about this company's crimes.”
While he isn’t sure about the workers’ new living conditions, Adi said that the local community is relieved about the move.
“We sometimes feel sorry for the workers, living in cramped barracks where sometimes one family lives. Their wages are too low, sometimes they just eat instant food and share it with their families, even though they work for big companies,” Adi said, adding that conditions in the barracks were worrying the local community long before they were revealed to the public.
Dedi Armaya, Toba Pulp’s communications officer, told VICE World News on Friday that the housing was always intended to be temporary.
“Of course the company has the right to dismantle the barracks as long as it is in the company’s concession area,” he said. “The workers were placed there while waiting for the location of housing for the workers that has just been completed.”
Recent scrutiny surrounding Toba Pulp’s barracks has also raised concerns from local authorities. In May, just weeks after the report was published, different government officials from the Ministry of Manpower and Ministry of Health paid visits to the plantation, Adi said. Over the course of a week, they surveyed the barracks and met with workers and nearby villagers.
However, according to those who have been advocating for workers’ rights on the plantation, the shabby barracks and Toba Pulp’s recruitment of minors aren’t news to the government.
Delima Silalahi, the director of the Community Initiative Study and Development Group, a local NGO tackling child labor and poor living conditions on the plantation, said that the government has long known about these exploitative practices, but never directly addressed Toba Pulp on the issue before it received media attention.
“The demolition of the barracks was triggered because of the report, [but] I believe there are other violations committed by the company,” she told VICE World News, citing the company’s mass deforestation projects, land grabbing, and pesticide pollution.
“I hope that media exposures are carried out more often so that more people know about this company's crimes.”
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