Organizing Palm Oil Plantation Workers to Hold Bollore-Scofin to Account

ACORN International

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 10.40.24 AMGrenoble   Working with our ACORN’s partner, ReAct, yesterday we tackled tightening down and scaling up their accountability campaign on the giant French palm oil company, Bollore’ owned by Scofin, headquartered in Brussels. The plantations are broadly distributed around the world with locations as far afield as Cambodia and Indonesia but most concentrated in Africa with the largest number at seven plantations in Cameroon and additional significant operations in Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Congo, San Tome, and Sierra Leone.

ReAct and its organizers in France and on the ground in these countries had built organizations of plantation workers in five of the nine countries. The issues were acute. Some workers were employed directly by the plantations and their conditions were anything but optimal. Others were subcontractors or suppliers of sorts with plots of land allowing them to supply to Bollore-Scofin their product directly for distribution. The issue here was often land-grabbing as the company tried to expand and often ran roughshod over existing small producers in the area.

After hard work and many petitions, actions, and marches on plantation offices the associations organized by ReAct had exerted enough pressure that they won a breakthrough meeting to negotiate with Bollore at its headquarters in Paris in September 2014. The meeting had cleared the air with representatives from the associations around the world in attendance, Bollore’ seemed to get the message and some tentative agreements were reached and it seemed some progress was made. Over the last year those early signs of progress have degenerated into stalling and stonewalling with Bollore’ insisting that its corporate owner, Scofin, has the authority to make agreements and implement any affirmative commitments and that Scofin is not responding.

The ReAct supported plantation associations haven’t taken this slowdown passively, and have launched a steady campaign of actions, rallies, marches, and demonstrations since the spring. In Cameroon, the pressure was intense with each plantation taking a turn one week after another until the managers agreed to meet and try to get the negotiations on track again. ReAct allies joined them in demonstrations at the annual corporate board meetings of Bollore’ in Paris several months ago and at Scofin in Brussels as well, demanding an end to land-grabbing and a return to the progress and promises of the earlier meeting. There are signs that the company may be yielding. We are preparing a plantation committee now for a meeting suddenly called by Bollore’ in Liberia where we have more recently turned up the heat since meetings are again legal with the receding of the Ebola crisis and the labor shortages that arose in its wake.

“Out of sight, out of mind” is the transnational business model for both profit and exploitation. For our organization the model is doubling down. We spent hours tightening down the organizing plan on the ground and discussing how ACORN could assist in bringing in Nigerian and Indonesian workers into the campaign and strengthening the program in Liberia where English, rather than French, is the more common language.

Palm oil is becoming more and more popular with consumers, but that doesn’t mean that companies on the production side from fields to market can continue to expect that they can ignore the demands of their workers and the communities where they operate. Bollore’ and Scofin had seemed to understand that the best course was to meet their workers half-way, but if they are now deciding to the take the harder road, ReAct and the associations on the ground are digging in to make them the poster child for how not to operate.

This is one fight that is not going to go away.