Investigative reporters Margie Mason and Robin McDowell, whose initial reporting exposed widespread labor abuse in the palm oil industry, followed up with a comprehensive investigation into the brutal treatment of women in the production of the omnipresent ingredient, including rapes by plantation supervisors, serious health issues from toxic chemicals and injuries from back-breaking loads. The pair then traced the oil produced by these women to the supply chains of top Western beauty brands — including conglomerates that make billions of dollars as they market the empowerment of women.

Mason and McDowell persuaded dozens of female workers to tell their searing stories, spending months getting the women to trust them and then arranging clandestine meetings in an effort to protect the workers from retaliation by plantation owners. They bypassed the stonewalling of major Western brands that refused to say whether their products contain palm oil by using company data and U.S. Customs records to link the workers’ abuse to the brands’ palm oil supply chains.

The package featured striking digital display, video and evocative photos by Indonesia-based stringer Binsar Bakkara, as well as a powerful series of closeups of workers’ hands cradling familiar products containing the fruits of their labor.

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November 2020 photos show the hands of five generations of women from a family that has worked on the same palm oil plantation since the early 1900s, ranging in age from 6 to 102. They each hold products made by iconic Western companies that source palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia.

AP Photo

The story is nearing 250,000 page views on AP News, with a big portion of the traffic driven by robust interactions with our Facebook post, which was shared thousands of times. The Clorox Company, which owns Burt’s Bees Inc., said it would raise the allegations of abuses with its suppliers, calling AP’s findings “incredibly disturbing.”