US bans palm oil imports from second Malaysian firm

The United States has banned imports from a Malaysian palm oil giant whose products are found in numerous household goods over concerns that its workers face a litany of abuse.

The move against Sime Darby Plantation, one of the world’s biggest producers, marks the second time the US has blocked shipments from a palm oil company in the Southeast Asian nation in recent months.

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Palm oil is a common ingredient in items ranging from processed foods to cosmetics, with Malaysia and neighbouring Indonesia producing 85 percent of the world’s supply.

But activists have long claimed that low-paid workers on plantations face abuse, and also blame the industry for driving destruction of rainforests to make way for plantations.

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Announcing the ban late Wednesday, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said there was evidence Sime Darby workers face abuses including sexual and physical violence, withholding of wages and restrictions on movement.

The ban “demonstrates how essential it is for Americans to research the origins of the everyday products that they purchase,” said CBP acting commissioner Mark A. Morgan.

The decision, which came into force Wednesday, means that all Sime Darby palm oil and palm oil products from Malaysia are banned from entering US ports.

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The company, which supplies major firms like Nestle and Unilever, runs a network of sprawling plantations, and employs migrant workers from countries including Indonesia and Bangladesh.

Earlier this year, anti-trafficking group Liberty Shared had petitioned the CBP to ban imports from Sime Darby over concerns about labour abuse.

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In October, the US banned imports from another Malaysian palm oil producer, FGV Holdings, following a lengthy probe that found indications its workers faced abuse.

Sime Darby did not respond to requests for comment. On its website, the company says it believes “we have a responsibility to respect, support and uphold fundamental human rights.”

For Radwan Jibril, wounded in a bastion of Libya’s 2011 revolution, losing his leg became “inevitable” and he had a prosthetic replacement, but thousands of other amputees are still waiting.

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An orthopaedic centre is finally scheduled to open in March to provide prostheses to amputees in the North African country riven by conflict for the past decade.

Jibril, like so many others, was hit by shrapnel in his western hometown of Misrata, which endured a devastating siege during the revolt that brought down longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
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“Despite several medical stays abroad, amputation was inevitable because the injury had been so badly treated. It was all a big shock,” he said.

“I was fitted with a prosthesis in Italy but it took a long time to get used to it,” said the 38-year-old Libyan, who sports a light beard.

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With the support of family, he has opened a fishmonger’s where he serves customers as best as he can with “this foreign body”, he told AFP, shuffling from stall to stall with one leg stiff.

Now, he feels “like a new man again”.

His prosthesis, however, is starting to wear out, and “with hundreds, if not thousands, waiting their turn, it won’t be easy” to have it serviced, he said.

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– Five-year target –

Mohamad al-Nouri, 28, had a hand amputated because of an injury while fighting in 2019 in the ranks of the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNA) against an abortive assault on the capital by forces of eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar.

He was fitted with an artificial hand but is waiting to go to Germany for a permanent prosthesis.

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“I don’t think I can go back to the cafe where I worked… I still need a lot of time to regain my confidence,” said the young man.

A national centre for prostheses, being established in the port city of Misrata, already has a patient waiting list of more than 3,000 amputees, said its director Al-Sadeq al-Haddad.

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“In five years, we hope to be able to provide prostheses to all amputees in Libya,” said Haddad.

“This will help them get their lives back, together with psychological and physical support,” he said.

With Libya’s health sector left in tatters by multiple conflicts since the revolution, war-wounded Libyans are often sent abroad for treatment, at the expense of the state.

The centre, to be housed in a brand new building, will save the government a “significant sum” of money, said its director.

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“A team of Hungarian specialists are to train technicians and run a rehabilitation service for a year,” Haddad said.

– ‘So many amputees’ –

In the face of “growing demand for help from amputees”, a partnership has been formed with Misrata University’s physical rehabilitation department that was set up with the support of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the GNA.

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Since 2016, about 1,000 patients with prostheses have been treated at the university by Libyan technicians trained abroad.

Badreddine Moftah said he chose to become an ortho-prosthetist “after having met so many amputees since 2011”.

He had a one-year internship in Germany and returned home to practise the profession.

Despite the rudimentary equipment in the university lab, Moftah painstakingly builds plaster sockets to cover the stumps of amputees, as students watch.