Earthworm Foundation is partnering with the Sabah Labour Department to implement the National Action Plan on Forced Labour and eliminate child labour in the palm oil industry in Sabah, Malaysia.
Supported by the Council for Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants, this project is part of Earthworm’s landscape programme in Sabah. Among other things, the landscape programme aims to improve protection for about 4,000 children in plantations, and welfare for 20,000 workers in Beluran, Telupid, Kinabatangan, Tongod and Lahad Datu districts in Sabah.
Porous borders and a dependency on migrant workers exposes both children and plantation companies to the risk of child labour. Migrant workers, mostly from Indonesia, make up about 80 percent of the plantation workforce in Malaysia. Though official numbers are hard to come by, there are about 40,000 Indonesian children in plantations in Sabah, according to estimates from the Indonesian government.
The past few years have seen forced and child labour issues attract both local and international media attention, affecting various industries in Malaysia such as rubber and palm oil. Along with the pandemic and recent labour shortages, this has had a financial and reputational impact on companies in Malaysia.
The Sabah Labour Department chose Earthworm Foundation as a civil society partner, along with local authorities such as the Sabah Immigration Department and Royal Malaysia Police. The aim is to raise awareness on forced and child labour and conduct dialogues with palm oil companies in five zones:
- Zone 1: Sandakan and Kinabatangan
- Zone 2: Tawau, Lahad Datu, Kunak and Semporna
- Zone 3: Beaufort, Sipitang, Kota Kinabalu and Ranau
- Zone 4: Keningau and Tenom
- Zone 5: Kudat, Kota Belud and Kota Marudu
The partnership started with a two-day event held in Sandakan, Sabah on 17 June. It was attended by 252 participants, representing 156 companies in Sabah.
Khairil Anwar from the Sabah Immigration Department spoke about the legislation and policies for hiring foreign workers in Sabah. Assistant Superintendent Sharanjeit Singh from the Royal Malaysia Police explained about the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling Act 2007 in Sabah.
Senior Manager Ooi Kiah Hui and Social Specialist Lynda Lim from Earthworm Foundation outlined steps palm oil companies can take to address forced and child labour. The event also included visits to estates at Kam Cheong Plantations Sdn. Bhd. and IOI Ladang Sakilan.
“The goal to end forced and child labour requires our urgent attention. But this can’t be achieved with government agencies alone. Palm oil companies, government agencies, trade unions and civil societies can and must be part of the solution if the scale of our results is to meet the scale of our ambitions,” said Wan Zulkfli Wan Setapa, Director of Sabah Labour Department.
Dialogues held with 156 oil palm companies have the power to make their voices heard, and can lead to better outcomes for workers and their children, said Lynda Lim, Social Specialist at Earthworm Foundation, who leads the Children in Plantations work in Malaysia.
“This helps policy makers craft effective strategies by engaging with companies and mapping out the magnitude of the problem, as well as needs, insights and challenges operationalising human rights due diligence,” she said.
This work in Sabah is supported by members Reckitt and Johnson & Johnson. These companies have responsible sourcing policies committing them to raw material supply chains free from deforestation and exploitation of people.
“Raw materials are an integral part of producing the brands our consumers need,” said David Pettet, Global Human Rights and Sustainable Supply Chain Director at Reckitt. “We might not buy them in their raw form, but we recognise the important role we play in ensuring they are sourced in a way that protects ecosystems and supports the livelihoods of communities in sourcing regions like Malaysia.”
In 2021, Reckitt launched a new Sourcing for Sustainable Growth policy, which outlines priority natural raw materials, Reckitt’s principles for sourcing them and requirements for suppliers.
“Through this and our Labour and Human Rights Standard, we aim to promote the rights of workers and vulnerable groups, like women and children, supporting collective efforts to tackle issues like forced and child labour,” David Pettet said.
This work is part of Earthworm's landscape programme in Sabah, Malaysia; which is supported by Reckitt and Johnson & Johnson. Here, we work in Beluran, Telupid, Kinabatangan, Tongod and Lahad Datu districts to reduce deforestation and wildlife conflict, and improve the lives of farmers, workers and communities.