By Tonggo Simangunsong
It was around ten one night when four men came to the home of Budi in Sumatra, Indonesia. His parents, growing concerned that he was using drugs, had signed him up to what they believed was a rehab facility, at the home of a prominent local politician.
Soon after, Budi found himself inside a concrete cell with some 30 other young men. There would be no medical treatment, according to Budi. Instead, over the coming months, he would be whipped, beaten, and forced to work in an oil palm plantation.
“It was a place of torture, not rehabilitation,” he told The Gecko Project.
Budi was one of more than 600 young men who passed through the facility over the past 12 years, according to Indonesian authorities, many of whom were physically abused and forced to work in the plantation.
Budi was among the more fortunate. At least two men died of injuries they sustained at the site in Langkat, North Sumatra, while being held captive.
As the victims toiled in the plantation and nearby factory without pay, the palm oil it produced was flowing into the supply chains of some of the world’s most famous brands. Public disclosures from firms including Unilever and Nestlé - the manufacturers of Dove soap and KitKats respectively - show they sourced from the plantation.
This week, eight men were sentenced to prison sentences ranging between 19 months and three years, for human trafficking and causing the deaths of two men. They include Dewa Perangin-angin, the 23-year-old son of Terbit Rencana Perangin-angin, the politician who owns the plantation.
The trial, as it unfolded over the past few months, laid bare the brutal secrets behind the facility.
In a small courtroom in the town of Stabat, earlier this year, a 30-year-old woman named Dewi Safitri told a panel of judges that her cousin had been sent to the facility after he began taking drugs and had been caught stealing. “He was sent there because it was free,” she said.
His body was returned home a week later. “There was a bruise on his jaw, and his eyes were blue,” she said. “Bruises all over the face."
Another man, Sarianto Ginting, died just three days after he was brought to the site, ostensibly to be treated for drug use. Prosecutors told the court he died after being whipped with a compression hose, beaten and submerged in a pool, as part of a ritual all new captives were subjected to in their first day at the site.
Dewa, the politician’s son, was convicted of causing Sarianto’s death.
The Gecko Project interviewed two men who were held at the facility and obtained summaries of interviews with a further three conducted by a human rights organisation.
They said that beatings were routine and they were made to work 12-hour days in the plantation or palm oil mill seven days a week. Those who attempted to escape were subjected to sadistic punishments: forced to eat a bag of MSG, or having their toenails crushed.
“Being beaten was mandatory,” said Putra. He and the other victim spoke to The Gecko Project on condition of anonymity (their names have been changed for this article).
Unilever said in a statement that it had suspended purchases from the plantation after it became aware of the allegations. A list of suspended suppliers shows this happened in February, the month after the case was first reported.
When The Gecko Project sent questions during the trial, in August, Nestlé said that its investigations into the case were “ongoing”.
“Modern slavery and any form of harassment and exploitation are simply unacceptable,” the company wrote. “They go against everything we stand for.” However it did not confirm that it had suspended the company as a supplier and has not responded to a request for comment now the trial has concluded.
The palm oil industry has been plagued by serious allegations of labour rights abuses in recent years. Almost all of the 73 million tonnes of the edible oil produced each year comes from plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, where labour is provided by migrant workers or local villagers.
A 2020 investigation by the Associated Press that examined the practices of two dozen palm oil companies found child labour, “outright slavery” and allegations of rape from female workers. In the wake of the investigation the US government banned imports from one of the world’s largest producers.
Reckitt, manufacturer of brands including Dettol and Vanish, began repaying $800,000 in compensation to workers who had been charged “recruitment fees” to secure jobs in a Malaysian plantation run by one of its suppliers, reportedly leaving them in debt. Reckitt did not confirm the identify of the supplier.
Reckitt also sourced palm oil from the plantation in Langkat, as recently as 2022. It learned of the allegations in January 2022, when they were reported by the environmental news site Mongabay, and subsequently suspended the company as a supplier.
Anis Hidayah, executive director of the Indonesian human rights organisation Migrant Care, which monitored the case in Langkat, said the remote location of palm oil plantations and a lack of government supervision make workers vulnerable to abuse. “If there were no researchers who went there, no one would know,” she said.
The Langkat case was only exposed when anti-corruption investigators raided the home of Terbit Rencana Perangin-angin, the elected head of Langkat district, in January this year. Terbit was suspected of engaging in corruption but the investigators discovered the cells as they swept through his property.
During the trial, Terbit appeared as a witness, via a video link, in which he said he had “absolutely nothing to do with the place.”
Terbit had previously been open about the existence of the facility. In a video posted to his wife’s YouTube channel last year, according to Mongabay, the couple appeared on camera speaking about its intended purpose for rehabilitating drug users. The video has since been removed.
Terbit was not charged with any offences related to the use of forced labour or the deaths at his home. However, he was convicted of corruption in October, for accepting 572 million rupiah, about $35,000, to decide a tender in favour of a contractor. He was sentenced to nine years in prison.
Terbit did not respond to a request for comment, sent via his spokesperson.
Sariandi Ginting attended the final hearing on November 30 with his wife, wearing a t-shirt and flip-flops. His older brother, Sarianto Ginting, died days after entering the facility. The prosecution had requested three years in prison for the men found guilty of causing his death, but they were sentenced to just 19 months.
“If that’s what the applicable law says, that’s what it is,” Sariandi told The Gecko Project outside the court, after the hearing on Wednesday. “All we can do is accept it.”
The names of some victims in this article have been changed.