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Economy & Labor , World

A rare instance of accountability

by Rachel Fobar January 30, 2023

This article was republished from a Fuller Project newsletter on January 30, 2023. Subscribe here.

It was December 2019, and I was getting ready to publish a Christmas-pegged story on the overharvesting of frankincense, an aromatic resin that the wise men gifted to Jesus in the Bible story of his birth, when one of my sources issued a warning. doTERRA, a U.S.-based multi-level marketing company featured in the story, which claimed to focus on efforts to harvest frankincense sustainably for the booming essential oils market, was not what it seemed.

That began a three-year investigation into frankincense harvesting practices in Somaliland. 

doTERRA, which has a largely female customer base, gets much of its frankincense from a Somali-based company called Asli Maydi. Ethical sourcing is front and center in doTERRA’s marketing: The company promises its resin is purer and more sustainably harvested, workers are paid better wages, and local harvesting communities are supported. On its website, doTERRA highlights its frankincense supply chain as an example of how it creates “more stable and reliable income, fairness, employment and security” for harvesters and sorters.

Many of the mostly-female “wellness advocates” who sell doTERRA products say the company’s ethical approach is what attracted them in the first place. At doTERRA’s September 2021 convention, a starry-eyed doTERRA member named Regan Plekenpol spoke about a mission-driven company that doesn’t tolerate exploitation.  

“I’d imagine that’s what brought many of you here,” she said to an enthusiastic audience. 

But the reality is very different, more than a dozen women told me. The work is backbreaking, the hours long, and promised benefits went unfulfilled. A handful of women claimed that Asli Maydi’s owner, Barkhad Hassan, had sexually harassed or even raped them. Hassan was wealthy and politically powerful, they said. Many feared him.

This story was difficult to report. I faced language barriers; skepticism about whether I, a stranger and foreigner, was trustworthy; and a culture that made women ashamed to speak about how they’d been victimized. One woman kept describing how she “felt terrible” and was not herself after one of the incidents in question — she was too ashamed to say the word “rape” aloud to me, my translator explained. She later talked more explicitly about the assault in a written statement. 

In response to my questions, doTERRA immediately promised to “temporarily suspend” operations in Somaliland and said the company would investigate the allegations of misconduct. doTERRA put out a statement saying it was “concerned” by the allegations of poor work conditions, which were “‘inconsistent with our current understanding of the operations,” and found the allegations of sexual misconduct “troubling.”

A shocking victory. In my career as a reporter so far, I’ve never gotten such a swift response to one of my investigations. The early impact of The Fuller Project’s story — the suspension of operations, the statement, and the pledge to investigate — represents the most action the company has taken to date.

It’s important to remember one thing: doTERRA allegedly knew about at least some of these reports for years. Anjanette DeCarlo, an American sustainability consultant who consulted for doTERRA, says that in 2019, she told the company that Hassan had raped her the previous year. 

“I felt that they should know who they were dealing with,” she said. “I was, like, ‘if he could do that to me … imagine what he’s doing to local girls.’”

After DeCarlo reported the rape in 2019, doTERRA continued working with Hassan for at least three years. Some wellness advocates took to social media to express their alarm about doTERRA’s response to our investigation.

“This statement makes it sound like they just found out about it”—but they hadn’t, one noted. Why didn’t they act sooner? Another complained, “I expect more from them.”

For one thing, I’ve learned that the women workers are no longer being paid by Asli Maydi. In effect, they’re being punished for Hassan’s chaotic leadership.

Amina Souleiman, a nonprofit director who’s been advocating for the women, expressed severe skepticism that doTERRA’s own investigation would result in any tangible benefits for the workers. This is why The Fuller Project and I intend to keep a close eye on how doTERRA continues to respond to our findings — and that means closely following up on whether these women are compensated for the abuses they suffered in helping doTERRA get to where it is today.

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