We spoke to Jodelen Mitra, from the International Labour Organization (ILO), about child labour in Malaysia, why it exists and how, by working with stakeholders, from farmers and NGOs to business, we can find solutions
On any given day, millions of children work on farms, plantations, or in mills and warehouses. 152 million, to be exact. That’s the number of kids involved in child labour around the world. The fruit of their labour often winds up on our plates, in our bathroom cabinets or on our supermarket shelves. It may seem like a simple case of removing the child from the work environment. But there’s nothing at all simple about this situation, says Jodelen Mitra, a technical officer at the ILO. Child labour, its causes, and the solutions are all complex.
According to the ILO, child labour is any work that deprives a child of their childhood or schooling, or that is potentially harmful to their physical and mental development. Some forms of work are considered acceptable for children and young workers, and as TFT’s Gerome Topka describes in his recent blog post, the situation is complicated and it is not always clear to employers, or families, where it crosses the line into child labour.
Take palm oil plantations in Sabah for instance. There, children and young workers can be found collecting fruit, maintaining plants or weeding, and carrying out other tasks. The reason for this may be that the parents are paid according to a piece rate system and must meet a quota to earn a wage to live off. Accordingly, their children may be drafted in to help. Or it could be that they are the children of migrant workers, which is a large part of the plantation workforce in Malaysia.
As Child Rights Coalition Malaysia notes, “refugee, asylum-seeking, stateless, and irregular migrant children face multiple forms of discrimination that stem largely from their uncertain, or lack of, legal status in Malaysia. They have very limited access to health care and education, and can be vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and other violations of their human rights.” It’s clear then, that the roots of child labour are varied. Influencing factors include: poverty, poor access to education, lack of enforcement of labour laws, the working conditions of parents, culture/norms/traditions, and a lack of understanding by companies, smallholders, parents and children about what is appropriate work.
It’s clear then, that the roots of child labour are varied. Influencing factors include: poverty, poor access to education and lack of enforcement of labour laws.
Due to the limited access to education, for instance, children may end up entering into the labour market as full-time or seasonal workers. In many cases, they may work without authorisation or documentation. These issues can take many years to address, says Mitra. But it’s not impossible to do so. What’s needed, she argues, is the buy-in of everyone, from the children’s families, farmers and employers all the way to big business and government.
In Sabah last year, TFT brought together 50 members of the palm oil industry, as well as NGOs and international organisations, such as the ILO, to discuss the issue, the challenges businesses face and think of ways to solve them. It was found that there is a lack of awareness among industry members of the difference between hazardous and non-hazardous work, confusion over the technical definition of child labour and insufficient guidance on legal compliance. Meetings like this, Mitra says, are essential as they help employers understand child labour and how it impacts their business. Find out more in this short video below.
Jodelen Mitra, from the International Labour Organization (ILO) spoke to us about what more she believes is needed to make supply chains free of child labour.
What type of work can children and young workers engage in?
Not all work done by children is child labour. Work is regarded positive when it does not affect the health, education and general well-being of the child. These important considerations about the risks that work brings to the child’s development are used in determining allowable work for children. This includes light work and work that does not threaten children’s health and safety, or hinder their education or vocational orientation and training.
All forms of hazardous work should also be prohibited for any person below 18 years old. To this extent, a hazardous work list is important. Some work is hazardous in nature but others are considered hazardous because of the working conditions, locations or exposure to biological, physical, chemical, psychological and sexual hazards.
Do you believe the issue of child labour, and the solutions, are sometimes oversimplified?
That’s actually very true. It’s a very complex issue. The solutions are multifaceted and not as simple as some would think. It’s a problem that is rooted in poverty, discrimination, lack of social protection, weak legal frameworks and enforcement, and also cultures, norms and traditions. For the employers it could be the lack of responsible or sustainable business practices. So, there’s a lot of things that contribute to child labour. When looking at sustainable solutions, they must address all of these root causes and involve different stakeholders.
Why are children working on plantations?
Firstly, it is important to note that data about child labour in plantations is very limited. There could be various ways that lead to children working on a plantation. For example, some smallholders engage their family members in farm and plantation work. Sometimes they will hire their neighbours to help, whether it’s for harvesting or weeding. Or there could also be the hiring of labour contractors. It’s possible that children work alongside their parents or other adults to help fill in the quota because of the piece rate payment system in the plantations.
One of the problems that is common to children of migrant workers is their very limited options in terms of education. In some cases, for example in Sabah, the bigger plantations are reported to have learning centres nearby, often run in collaboration with NGOs. According to UNHCR, an informal, parallel system of 133 community-based learning centres currently provides education to children of concern located all over Malaysia. These learning centres could be streamlined into the Malaysian education system and be made accessible to all children of migrant workers as well. Parents and children may also undervalue education. Even if alternative learning centres are available, dropouts are still common among migrant children.
What is the piece rate system, and how does it affect child labour?
When the workers are doing weeding or harvesting, they might not be paid daily or a fixed rate minimum wage. They must meet a quota. It can be counted by tonnes of harvested product or hectares weeded. This will be used to set the amount they earn.
The system creates a very vulnerable group of workers. If they don’t meet this quota, then the tendency is for them to bring in more help, which in some cases, are children. So, the payment system, and other labour conditions of the parents are areas that need to be addressed since these are related to the occurrence of child labour.
In cases like these, child labour seems to occur out of necessity. Why is child labour a problem?
It’s not beneficial at all for the child, family, and for society in general. Children are robbed of their childhood and miss the opportunity to get an education that can help them and their families out of poverty. For children, it affects their health. Physically, their bodies are not fully developed to do the work that adults do. They can develop health problems, for example, carrying heavy loads can affect their bones and can cause lifelong deformities.
It also has a social and psychological impact. If children go to work instead of school, they might not have time to integrate within their community or learn to interact with other children, losing the opportunity to gain valuable social skills necessary for the future. Psychologically, the children may be asked to just do whatever kind of work, and they can’t say no because they are afraid to.
If children go to work instead of school, they might not have time to learn to interact with other children, losing the opportunity to gain valuable social skills necessary for the future.
This can affect their empowerment and ability to claim their rights. In the short-term, child labour is often used to fulfil the needs of the family. The family’s basic needs to survive may be met but in the long-term it only leaves them stuck in a poverty cycle. This makes it difficult to improve their living conditions.
Children who aren’t educated may also find it difficult to access decent work because of their low knowledge and skills. If they get married, their children could end up becoming child labourers themselves. A key issue is that some children combine education and work. They might work before or after going to school. Even if they are attending school regularly, they may still work during weekends or holidays. In that case, it has to be considered whether the nature of the work is child labour, in terms of the presence of hazards and working hours, for example.
What are the benefits of a supply chain that’s free from child labour?
If the supply chain is free of child labour, children’s rights, such as on the health and education of children are better protected. An educated future workforce is something that will not just benefit the country in the long term, but also the families. The market is also increasingly becoming more conscious about business practices. Businesses want to build a good reputation. Involvement with child labour exposes them to public criticism because there’s a lot of pressure from the press, NGOs and from consumers themselves.
Where do the solutions to child labour lie?
I think it’s in the multi-stakeholder approach. We need to understand the issue from the ground up and more intervention to support employers to address the issue is needed. Employers need assistance from different organisations. This could start with creating a platform to discuss the issues and a knowledge exchange with other plantations who face child labour and hear from experts on the topic. Meetings, like the one in Sabah last year, provide that space.
Law reform has to take the issue of child labour into consideration, especially on how it can be prevented. Improving the access to education of migrant children and changing parents’ attitudes toward education are crucial. The government, employers and workers’ organizations and civil society organizations have to work hand-in-hand to create a National Action Plan on Child Labour. The roles of the different stakeholders are also very important: government develops policies; NGOs raise awareness, deliver services and engage in monitoring; and businesses and brands promote responsible business practices.
Is it possible to have a palm oil supply chain that is 100% free of child labour?
I think it is possible but it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to be a long-term process. It’s important to understand the supply chain better, and to see at every stage and every point what is needed to make sure that it’s child labour free. There’s some improvement in terms of the industry’s consciousness but we still have to see how this is translated into actions. We’re not seeing this change everywhere yet, but in some places it is there.