Fifth part of our series On the hidden routes of our money. This one will bring us to the most astonishing revelation of this investigation. Have you ever seen a communications advisor from an industrial group admit without hesitation the exploitation of minors by its subcontractors? This is what happened to us in Cameroon (see video below). We’ve been taking the story from the start. It all starts in a bank.
There are promises on paper that are attractive. Socially responsible investments are said to spearhead respect for the environment, social rights and good governance. The best.
During our mystery shopping in early 2019, we pushed the doors of a Belfius agency with the desire to invest € 5,000 ethically. The employee advises us on life insurance. In this product called Kite, there is a “Sustainable” category (Editor’s note: sustainable). It invests in 4 different investment funds. One of them is called Value Square Fund Equity World.
In the half-yearly report of June 30, 2019, there is an investment for an amount of € 6,217,317 in Socfinaf. The African branch of Socfin, the Société Financière des Caoutchoucs. It is a Luxembourg multinational active in palm oil. It is 54.24% owned by the Belgian, Hubert Fabri and at 38.75% by the French billionaire, Vincent Bolloré.
For many years, the group has been singled out by several non-governmental organizations, including CNCD-11.11.11, FIAN Belgium, Financité, Entraide et Fraternité, AEFJN and FairFin. These associations highlight many of the group’s drifts such as poor working conditions, land grabbing, pollution, etc.
In late 2019, Socfin sued some of them for slander, defamation, insult-offense and invasion of privacy. In reality, it has almost become a habit. This group and its partners, including Vincent Bolloré, have brought about twenty defamation proceedings in the past against reports or reports from NGOs. The land is mined. However, we are going to survey it like other media in the past (Mediapart, Liberation, Complément d’Enquête, Médor, etc.).
Socfin has subsidiaries in 8 African countries. One of the most profitable is Socapalm in Cameroon. It manages 58,000 hectares of plantations in the coastal region. The company agrees to open its doors to us as a token of its goodwill and transparency. We are meeting at the Mbambou factory two hours from Douala, the economic capital.
Belgians occupy key positions there. Roland Latinne is director of plantations and Dominique Cornet is the general director of Socapalm. The visit is well prepared. We are taken to see the pressing plant. The most modern. This is where palm oil is made. On the African continent, Socapalm is the largest producer of the Socfin group with 140,000 tonnes of oil per year, 6,000 jobs and a turnover of more than 100 million euros.
We are assured, no chemicals are used. And the plant’s wastewater is treated directly in lagoon ponds. The company claims to be sustainable and responsible. ” I believe that in Europe, it seems that the effluents from the factory are discharged directly into the environment. That no. You see for yourself that there is a treatment “, explains Joseph Mengue, the general secretary of Socapalm.
Then stop in the plantations. The vast majority of workers are subcontractors. They are in the midst of harvesting palm nuts, the raw material used to make the oil. They are paid by the task. Apparently well-paid work. Secretary’s confirmation: ” Socapalm’s wages are well above the statutory rate. Subcontractors line up. We make it a priority. We will look for more than double the SMIG “. The guaranteed minimum wage in Cameroon is 36,000 FCFA. The workers would therefore earn more than 70,000 FCFA. The equivalent of 106 €.
A good mother hen
During the whole visit, we will travel in large delegations of several vehicles. The leaders want to show us V2, village n ° 2. 350 inhabitants. Subcontracted workers live there in comfortable and modern houses. A site is also underway to build others. Villagers have access to clean water. We will also be taken to visit a health clinic and a school. All these infrastructures were financed by the Socfin subsidiary. So much evidence of his desire to develop the region for the benefit of its inhabitants. ” Socapalm is a good mother hen who tries to incubate all of her chicks, her populations. Whether those inside, that is to say the workers and subcontractors or the populations of the riverside community “, concludes Joseph Mengue.
We could stop on this beautiful table. Except that, two months earlier, we had visited another plantation, that of Dibombari. And this time, without the control of the company. What we found there is not at the same level. Far from there.
Emmanuel Elong is the President of Synaparcam (Synergie Nationale des Paysans et Riverains du Cameroun). This trade unionist fights to improve the working conditions of the workers but also of the residents of Socapalm. He takes us to Mbonjo, his native village, for a visit to the workers’ camp. We see makeshift shelters with gnawed walls and perforated roofs. ” The boards are rotten. They date from 1974. They are not treated as human beings. My fight is not to fight Socapalm. But to get him to treat his workers like human beings“
They are bringing back slavery
Inside the plantation, a sweaty subcontractor chains the pruning of the palm trees with a 14-meter pole. It is over 30 ° C. ” It’s too much. I feel weak … They are bringing back slavery “. He tells us that he earns the equivalent of one euro a day.
In another plot, two other workers confirm that they earn between 15 and 30 € per month. It is two to three times less than the minimum wage guaranteed in Cameroon. We ask one of them his age: ” 16 years old. I dropped out of school because I don’t have a father. My mother is already dead with my father “. Illegally, the Jonas company, a subcontractor of Socapalm, therefore exploits a minor.
Socfin has always denied hiring miners on its plantations. ” La Socapalm, which has been accused of subcontracting certain work to unscrupulous companies in terms of labor law, carried out a rigorous check of the administrative documents of all the workers working on its plantations. No worker below the age of 18 works directly or indirectly for Socapalm “, can we read in its sustainable development report. The speech will evolve. We will come to it. A little more patience.
The 16-year-old boy works with his bare hands to apply a pesticide to the feet of palm trees. His hands are blue and he rubs his face regularly. We had this product analyzed in the laboratory. It’s Triclopyr. It is low in dosage but is mixed with other more concentrated substances: benzene derivatives or dimethyl formamide. Some of these molecules are harmful by inhalation or in contact with the skin. ” It is irresponsible to use (and make use of) this kind of product without precaution “, analyzes Bernard de Ryckel of the Walloon agricultural research center of Gembloux.
The Socfin Empire has other hidden sides. In a last plantation, in the heart of the village of Mbongo, no one can miss the Socapalm factory. We’re going to get as close as possible. We support Michel Essounga, an activist who is also a local. The cultivable lands of the villagers seem to be polluted by brownish industrial water. At the foot of the factory wall, we discover the origin of the rejection: ” They opened holes behind the factory at their barrier where they dump all the wastewater. It goes into the polluted Mabangué river where there is not even anything left. There are no more fish. There’s nothing left in there “.
There will be no more life
We take water directly from the hole in the wall. A trickle of water flows continuously down to the river below. The laboratory report is final: ” The sample is characterized by a very high polluting load. The value of the chemical oxygen demand is around 53,000 mg / lO2. We are well over 100 times the standards prescribed by the European Union. Downstream of this kind of rejection, there will be no more life “, comments Pol Bouviez, Head of the Environment area at Hainaut Analyzes.
Precarious conditions of workers, hiring of miners and pollution. We have brought these problems to the attention of the leaders of Socapalm. The secretary general will deny everything: ” No, Socapalm does not employ minors.
– Neither its subcontractors?
– No. You are not going to make me believe what I cannot believe. This case of a minor worker does not exist “.
We return to the place of pollution. Fortunately, two months later, she disappeared. How long did it last? We do not know it. Again, factory officials deny and downplay the facts. A dialogue of the deaf follows.
In the midst of this cacophony, a light of honesty will emerge. It comes from Alexandre Siewe, the marketing consultant hired by Socapalm to supervise our visit. He will recognize the hiring of minors by subcontractors. A totally unexpected speech: ” Obviously it can happen. There are people who are paid to do the checks. Subcontractors cheat to save money. I guarantee that if we go to check the child you are talking about today, the one who hired him …
– Has it been 18 years?
– He must have been 21 years old. Oh no, we say it without embarrassment, it will take time “.
It’s hard to believe. However, we heard right. In two minutes, the marketing advisor has just undermined the entire line of communication of the multinational. It is all the more surprising that Socfin and its partners, including Vincent Bolloré, systematically sued the media which had made this same discovery before us. Tristan Waleckx, a journalist for France Televisions, paid the price in several trials he won at first instance and on appeal. In criminal proceedings, Vincent Bolloré has appealed on points of law. The procedure is still ongoing. After years of denial, the statements made by Socapalm’s marketing advisor confirm the seriousness of the investigation by the 2017 Albert London Prize winner. The multinational or its subsidiary had never confessed to the shameful.
Belfius therefore invested its clients’ money in a company that indirectly employs miners on its own plantations. We showed our images to the bank. She did not deny the problem: ” This is clearly unacceptable. These are conditions that are not acceptable in the 21st century. It is deplorable to see that there are companies that continue to exploit human misery. I’m going to ask to take the necessary action to get out of this kind of position. These are not at all the values that Belfius wishes to convey. And that is clearly something that is unacceptable and that has gone through the cracks “.
The bank will keep its commitments. Belfius will notify the manager of Value Square of its desire to no longer distribute its investment funds. On March 24, 2020, all Value Square funds were removed from the portfolios of Belfius clients. Socfin has disappeared from the bank’s investment universe.