We brought some of the biggest players together to talk about the sensitive subject of children in oil palm plantations in Sabah, Malaysia. The aim was to gain insight on the subject from palm oil businesses, thus informing our future efforts to improve the lives of children on oil palm plantations.
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Sandakan, Sabah – Does working on the family farm in my youth make me a child labourer? This was one of many questions asked at an event about children in oil palm plantations, which we organised with our members – Nestlé, Archer Daniels Midlands (ADM) and Wilmar. The event, held in Sandakan, Sabah, was attended by about 50 participants from small, medium and large companies – mostly plantations and mills operating on the east coast of Sabah. Given the lack of official information on the subject, this was a unique opportunity for people from different backgrounds to share best practices and the challenges of providing for the welfare of children in plantations.
Speakers included representatives from Nestlé, Wilmar International, International Labour Organisation (ILO), UNICEF, Humana Child Aid Society, Malaysian Palm Oil Certification Council (MPOCC), East Malaysia Planters’ Association (EMPA), and the Indonesian Consulate in Sabah. Gaining insight from businesses was a key aim of discussions, as much of previous research has focused on workers and NGOs. The outcome is the 2017 "Children in the Plantations of Sabah: Stakeholder Consultation Workshop Report" and "Children in Plantations info-sheet", which will aid the design of solutions sought by TFT and its members to improve the lives of plantation children.
Migrant workers' children
Among discussions was the current situation of migrant workers’ children in plantations. Porous borders and an informal employment structure, especially among smallholder farmers, mean many undocumented migrants from neighbouring Indonesia and Philippines work in oil palm plantations in Sabah. Their children, if born in Malaysia, are not documented and lose access to many basic rights such as education and healthcare.
These children grow up around rows of oil palm trees that dominate the landscape of Sabah. In Indonesia, where the situation is similar to Malaysia, children inevitably end up helping their family meet harvesting quotas after school, according to a 2016 UNICEF study.
Official statistics are hard to come by, especially given the size and remoteness of many plantations. However, the Humana Child Aid Society, an educational NGO in Sabah, estimates there are about 40 children for every 1,000 hectares of plantation. To put this into context -- as of 2009, there were over one million hectares of plantation in Sabah, according to the Malaysian Palm Oil Board. By the Humana Child Aid Society’s calculations, that’s around 40,000 children in oil palm plantations in Sabah.
Research in the field
Between 2013 and 2015, TFT visited about 50 mills, plantations and small growers. Of these, it was found that only a few had child labour policies, while children were found living in just under 30 percent of them.
Though plantation-specific data is scarce, a study by researchers from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia suggests “children’s involvement in paid activities is a long-standing phenomenon in Sabah.” While no one factor can completely explain why children work, the study points to poverty as a root cause. But this isn’t always the case. Some children interviewed during the study said that they worked to exert their independence, while others said that their parents encouraged them to work. Some parents felt that their children are better off learning employable skills, especially if they aren’t doing well at school.
While education is considered a key factor in mitigating the risk of
child labour, workshop participants said that parents’ attitudes were a
challenge to efforts in dealing with the issue of working children.
Immigration irregularities were another factor cited as a challenge.
Insights and challenges brought up by companies and industry stakeholders at the 2017 Consultation were shared with government agencies and civil society organisations at the 2018 Multi-Stakeholder Consultation on Children in Plantations co-hosted with the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) to explore potential collaborative solutions.