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AP traces child labor from Southeast Asia’s palm oil fields to major brands, Girl Scout cookies

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Global investigations reporters Robin McDowell and Margie Mason have long had a commitment to exposing labor abuse in global supply chains, notably their groundbreaking work on slavery in the seafood industry that led to the freeing of more than 2,000 fishermen six years ago.

This time, joined by Indonesia-based photographer Binsar Bakkara, video journalist Allen Breed in North Carolina and Nashville, Tennessee, photographer Mark Humphrey, McDowell and Mason looked at another little-noticed group of workers in Asia: children.

The team delved again into the palm oil industry in Indonesia and Malaysia. In the final piece of an AP series around palm oil abuses,they traced the fruits of the labor to the supply chains of the makers of popular cereals,candies and ice creams,including KitKats,Oreos, Magnum and Cap’n Crunch. They also linked the oil to that most American treat: Girl Scout cookies.

Their reporting found that an estimated tens of thousands of children toil in the palm fields,some kept out of school and forced to work for free or for little pay,and routinely exposed to dangerous chemicals. Others are smuggled across borders and left vulnerable to trafficking or sexual abuse.

The story also showed how generations are doomed to know no other life than scraping by on a palm oil plantation.

As the reporters wrote: “In some cases, an entire family may earn less in a day than a $5 box of Girl Scout Do-si-dos.”

Bakkara provided photos of child laborers from Indonesia and Malaysia,while Humphrey and Breed contributed from the United States, including Humphrey’s photos of a Girl Scout in rural Tennessee.

The compelling framing of the story — through the eyes of a young girl in the fields in Indonesia and the Tennessee Girl Scout campaigning to have palm oil removed from the cookies — resonated with readers.

The story scored remarkably high reader engagement and racked up almost 75,000 pageviews on its first day during the slow holiday period,with much of the traffic driven by Twitter and Facebook. It continued to gain tens of thousands of views in the coming days.

The Girl Scouts initially had no comment despite repeated attempts,but the story caught fire on Twitter, goading the organization to send tweets the day after publication calling on the two companies that bake its cookies to act quickly to address any potential abuses linked to the palm oil in their supply chains.

In mid-December,as a result of earlier reporting by McDowell and Mason,25 Democratic lawmakers from the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee cited AP’s investigation in a letter calling for the government to come down harder on the industry in Malaysia and Indonesia,asking U.S. Customs and Border Protection if it had considered a blanket ban on imports from those countries.

For shedding unprecedented light on child labor in Southeast Asia’s palm oil fields,and linking the abusive practice to major consumer brands,McDowell,Mason,Bakkara, Breed and Humphrey share AP’s Best of the Week honors for the week of Dec. 28.

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