The issue of children in palm oil plantations

Multi-stakeholder approach is needed to address the issue in Sabah, says Nadiah Rosli

Kota Kinabalu, Sabah – The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) and global non-profit The Forest Trust (TFT) emphasise that closer collaboration is required from all stakeholders to formulate practical solutions concerning children in plantations in Sabah. The involvement of children and young persons in plantation work, coupled with the lack of guidance and alternatives for children on site that increases the risk of child labour in palm oil supply chains, have been highlighted in TFT’s ‘Children in the Plantations of Sabah: Stakeholder Consultation Workshop Report’ published in May this year.

The scale of the challenge is also acknowledged in the report, which calls upon regulators and industry players to accelerate action in addressing this long-standing issue together with civil society and expert stakeholders.

“Some key findings from the report have been found to be structural in nature, requiring regulatory and policy reviews such as procedures relating to the legalisation of undocumented workers and their families, access to education in remote areas, and the insufficient guidance for legal compliance. Thus, we urge the authorities to explore potential collaboration with stakeholders to find concrete ways forward,” said Natasha Mahendran, Social and Human Rights Manager of TFT Malaysia.

She added that complete transparency of the Children in Plantations issue is vital to further improve children’s education, health and safety on-site. Continuous engagement with regulators is also important to allow proactive steps in market practices that meet national and international standards concerning children and young persons.

International markets clearly require action on child labour. Key business actors from brands to producers, such as TFT’s member companies, have an appetite to address this issue. But these businesses can’t do it alone – they require further policy clarity, guidance and support from regulators and expert organisations to ensure their supply chains are child-labour free.

Given that Sabah’s oil palm acreage is at approximately 1.55 million hectares of the total 5.8 million hectares of oil palm planted areas in Malaysia (2017), the children and young persons in plantations issue is compounded by the industry’s heavy reliance on foreign labour in the context of local labour shortage. Many workers and their families live in company-provided accommodation that is often located within the plantation complex. Due to the remoteness of some plantations, parents struggle to register the births of their children.

“Despite the complex legacy of social, labour and migration issues in Sabah, palm oil producers want to move forward. TFT and member companies are ready to support and work together with SUHAKAM, relevant government agencies as well as other stakeholders to address the challenges and concerns on the ground,” she said, at a consultation hosted by SUHAKAM and TFT in Kota Kinabalu, today.

Two sessions were held at the consultation: a morning session with government agencies and an afternoon session with NGOs and experts on the issue of vulnerable children in Sabah. A total of 98 participants from government agencies, Government-Linked Companies, universities, and non-governmental organisations attended the sessions. The consultation represents continuous efforts to bridge the gap between businesses, government agencies and NGOs, thus paving the way for more collaboration in addressing child-related issues in the plantation sector.