JAKARTA: A recent sting operation by Indonesian antigraft investigators has brought the spotlight to alleged modern slavery practices, after workers were found caged at a powerful local official's residence.
In the raid on Jan. 18, officials probing Terbit Rencana Perangin-Angin, the head of Langkat district in North Sumatra province, found men locked up in barred cells at his residential compound.
Local police said the cells were an unregistered drug rehab facility that had been running for the last decade.
The National Commission on Human Rights, which is investigating whether the caging of men was a practice of "modern-day slavery," said in a video statement on Sunday one of the imprisoned persons is believed to have died at the facility since 2012.
"We found there was indeed a rehabilitation process where physical violence and loss of life have been recorded," commissioner M. Choirul Anam told reporters at North Sumatra police headquarters.
Anam said the facility was operating illegally.
North Sumatra Police Chief Panca Putra Simanjuntak revealed similar findings.
“We found there are victims of violence, including (one) who had died. We are still investigating who is responsible for this incident,” he told reporters.
According to labor advocacy group Migrant Care, which reported the case to the rights commission, the people at Perangin-Angin's facility were "forced to work at palm oil plantations."
"There are suspicions that they are not fed enough, that they are tortured, unpaid, and certainly devoid of the freedom to move and communicate — that’s the report we received,” Migrant Care head Anis Hidayah told Arab News.
She said the case was not isolated in the country, which is the world’s top producer of palm oil, with exports of the commodity valued at almost $23 billion in 2020. The industry employs 3.78 million plantation workers, according to International Labor Organization data.
Most of the plantations are located in the rural areas of Sumatra and Kalimantan islands, where public scrutiny is limited.
“Workers in the palm oil sector are prone to slavery, because they are usually located in remote areas far from the public and lacking in supervision," Hidayah said.
The workers union of Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, condemned the use of human cages by Perangin-Angin.
"Palm oil workers are not treated like workers," the union's vice president Sukitman Sudjatmiko said as quoted by the organization's media wing. "They seem to be exploited and this is called modern slavery." The government said it will leave the case to law enforcement authorities to process.
"On deprivation of freedom there is a clause in the Criminal Code," Home Minister Tito Karnavian said last week. "Now, as it has entered the legal domain, let law enforcement officers (take action)."
He added that the use of human cages should not have happened "from the perspective of government administration ethics."