While child rights have progressed in Malaysia, key challenges remain; especially with children living in oil palm plantations, said Letchumanan Shanmugam from the Malaysian Ministry of Plantation, Industries and Commodities (MPIC).
Letchumanan, Senior Under-Secretary at MPIC, spoke during a webinar hosted by Earthworm Foundation and Lexis Nexis. The webinar, titled “Child Rights in the Palm Oil Industry,” was held May 5, 2021 and attended by palm oil producers, consumer goods manufacturers, government agencies, law firms and civil society.
In 1995, Malaysia ratified the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). In 2018, the Ministry of Plantation, Industry and Commodities carried out a survey to estimate the prevalence of forced and child labour in oil palm plantations in Malaysia.
“We are now developing the country’s first National Action Plan on Child Labour.” Letchumanan said. “This will include awareness campaigns, strengthened enforcement, and establishing a child labour referral mechanism.”
In line with the government’s direction – and in conjunction with 2021 as the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour – the webinar aimed to raise awareness of child rights among legal and compliance teams in palm oil businesses. Focusing on international and national standards, speakers at the event covered what companies can do to safeguard child rights.
Dr. Kathryn Rivai – founder of Etania, a school for undocumented and stateless children – highlighted the reality in plantations in Sabah state.
“These are marginalised children,” she said. “They live in poverty with limited access to education and freedom of movement. They are invisible children.”
Kamini Visvanathan, a human rights consultant at Insaight, introduced international and industry standards for child rights. These include the UNCRC, ILO (International Labour Organisation) conventions, and RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) standards. Other key legislation includes the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015, which includes mandatory supply chain due diligence. She touched on how these apply to palm oil producers, smallholders, group managers, downstream actors and certification bodies.
The latter part of event touched on national legislation. The Children and Young Persons (Employment) Act 1966 (Amendment 2019) – applicable in Peninsular Malaysia – allows young people to do light work, said Sara Lau, Senior Associate at Skrine. But this comes with conditions to the type, days and hours of work allowed. Children 12 years and below are prohibited from working.
Over in Sabah and Sarawak, other laws apply, said Nicholas Wung of Reddi & Co. Advocates. These include the Sabah Labour Ordinance, Sarawak Labour Ordinance and the Factories and Machinery Act 1967.
The webinar ended with pragmatic ways companies can comply with national and international standards. This includes a child-risk assessment and stakeholder engagement, said Lynda Lim, Malaysia lead for Earthworm's work on children in plantations. She explained the steps within a child-risk assessment and what companies can do to prevent and mitigate risks for children in plantations.
"While is it not legally necessary to have in-depth SOPs, companies that have clear policies that comply with minimum standards of the law can reduce legal and corporate risk,” said Aneera Chowdhury, Proprietor of AJ Chowdhury.
This webinar is in support of Earthworm's Landscape programme in Malaysia and the ILO 2021 Action Pledge on Eliminating Child Labour.