“Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future,” said Madzaral bin Sebalun, Assistant Director of the Sabah Department of Labour (JTK), Ministry of Human Resources, Malaysia.
Madzaral was speaking at an online event titled “Partnerships for Collective Action: Driving Change for Children in Oil Palm Plantations in Sabah” held 11 May 2022. The event, organised by Earthworm Foundation, was attended by about 200 people and featured perspectives, challenges and potential solutions from the palm oil, government and civil society sectors.
“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to eliminate child labour. Rather, it is crucial to address root causes and the broader problem,” he said. “This will require a concerted effort on many fronts, including government agencies, companies, trade unions, NGOs, local authorities, parents and the communities.”
In 2021, the Malaysian government announced that national action plans for forced and child labour are in the works, a first for the nation. The government is also facing a labour shortage – Malaysia lacks about 1.2 million workers in the construction, manufacturing and plantation sectors.
The palm oil industry in Sabah relies heavily on Indonesian and Filipino migrant workers, whose children often live with them in remote plantations. These children face limited access to education, healthcare and birth registration, which are all risks linked to child labour.
“There are thousands of children in plantations. They and their families have no documentation, meaning that the system is perpetuated through generations,” said Dr. Kathryn Rivai, Founder of Etania, which runs 12 schools for undocumented plantation children in Sabah.
The are an increasing number of people without legal identity, which is crucial for a child's well-being, said Mary Anne Baltazar, Founder of ANAK.
“The causes of undocumented children include the situation of parents,” she said. “For example, they may not be able to afford registration costs, fear arrest or lack knowledge about registration processes.”
Among other causes are the fact that the Philippines doesn’t have a diplomatic presence in Sabah, Baltazar said.
Due to the proximity between Indonesia and Sabah, many Indonesians come to work in Sabah without following proper procedures, said Debbi Oktarossa, Consulate General of the Republic of Indonesia.
“There are about 300,000 unregistered Indonesians in Sabah, with most of them working in oil palm plantations,” she said. “By our estimates, there are about 40,000 Indonesian children in plantations in Sabah.”
Many undocumented children end up completing Grade 6 at a later age, because they start school later than local children, said Dayang Nurihsan Jainal, Executive Director at Humana Child Aid Society, which runs 129 learning centres for undocumented children in Sabah.
Both Etania and Humana work closely with plantation companies and the Indonesian consulate to run their schools.
There are varying degrees of support on plantations for workers and their families, Dr. Rivai said. In estates she works with, management is supportive and helps the school and children with whatever they need. Children also get vaccinations, health checks, and they listen to talks. They have free homes, water, creches and transport to school.
While there are some companies with a proactive attitude towards alleviating vulnerability, there remain fundamental gaps in the social context which enable risk to children. Given these risks are broader than any given supply chain, they are difficult for any one company to solve on its own, said Aarti Kapoor, Executive Director of consultancy Embode, who lead a panel session with plantation companies, IOI Group, Mewah Group and Wilmar International.
“For us, the shift came when we realised it’s not just about child labour but also ensuring that the children in our care are protected,” said Perpetua George, General Manager, Group Sustainability at Wilmar International. “It’s really about providing a place where children can live a healthy life and have opportunities.”
Another key learning is the increasing awareness of human rights issues among suppliers and plantation staff, said Jit Uei Lim, Group Head of Commodity Marketing at IOI Group.
There’s always more that can be done and this is where partnership is key moving forward, said Ming Yee Tan, Assistant Sustainability Manager for Mewah Group.
Change will require government, civil society and palm oil companies to work collectively to achieve stronger outcomes for children’s needs, said Lynda Lim, Social Specialist for Earthworm Foundation, who leads the children in plantations work in Malaysia.
"The issues facing children in plantations is very complex," Lim said. "Systemic change involves working with the complexity to help people see the whole system; with a collective and holistic approach to tackle challenges too difficult for an individual entity to solve."