EU, UN agencies launch program to tackle child labor in Sabah

Initiative hopes to provide better access to education, training for child workers on palm oil plantations in the Malaysian state.
Ili Shazwani Ihsan and Minderjeet Kaur
Kuala Lumpur
EU, UN agencies launch program to tackle child labor in Sabah A plantation worker picks up palm fruits at a palm oil estate in Batu Pahat, Johor, July 22, 2022.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

The European Union and two United Nations agencies launched an initiative Wednesday to end child labor at palm oil plantations in the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah.

Nearly 20,000 children work in the palm oil industry in Sabah, one of two Malaysian states on Borneo island, according to a 2018 government survey of plantation workers. Nationwide at least 33,600 children aged between 5 and 17 years old were employed that year on palm oil plantations.

The new initiative seeks to provide thousands of child workers better access to education and training opportunities, particularly in Sabah’s Tawau district, officials from the EU bloc, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNICEF said.

“Eradicating child labor is a top priority for the EU, and working proactively to prevent it is all the more urgent right now. We know that strong, local partnerships are essential to understand, address, and prevent child labor,” said Dr. Audrey-Anne Rochelemagne, Cooperation Team Leader of the Delegation of the EU.

“This is why we have joined forces with ILO, UNICEF, and local actors to implement this program,” she also said in a statement issued by the International Labour Organization. The program’s launch coincided with this year’s World Day Against Child Labour.

The European Union is a major importer of palm oil, a commodity used in a variety of products from soap to peanut butter. 

Tawau has the third largest palm oil plantation area in Sabah, with over 232,000 hectares, according to the 2018 statistics from the Sabah Agricultural Department.

Sabah is Malaysia’s largest palm oil-producing state, accounting for more than one fourth of the country’s total palm oil supply in 2019, according to a 2021 report of the World Wide Fund for Nature. Malaysia is the world’s second-largest palm oil producer behind Indonesia.

Children work on plantations because their families struggle financially due to low wages and the pressure to increase palm fruit production, the ILO said. According to the U.N. agency, limited access to formal education and child protection in oil palm plantations has further worsened the situation.

Many of the children working in plantations also belong to migrant families, according to a 2023 report by UNICEF’s regional office for East Asia and the Pacific.

“Many families of migrants and illegal immigrants work in palm oil plantations where the children in the family do not have valid documents and have difficulty accessing education and other services, thus forcing them to go out to work,” children rights activist Hartini Zainudin told BenarNews on Wednesday.

A lot of these children spend more hours working because they have no access to education and they want to help their parents achieve production quota, Anne Balthazar, another advocate for children, said. 

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Two children work to help their families by selling tissues and nuts in front of a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, 11 July 2021. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

The project, which will run up to June 2025, will work with children and their families in and around palm oil plantations in Sabah.

“Every child, no matter their legal status, has a right to a childhood and the full range of rights guaranteed in the Convention on the Rights of the Child,” said Robert Gass, the UNICEF Representative in Malaysia.

“We believe that change is possible for children working in and around plantations if all sectors – public and private – work together to prevent and address the root causes leading to child labor, and to promote remedy when it occurs.”

BenarNews on Wednesday sought comments from the Sabah Department of Labor on the project and the problem of child labor, but did not immediately hear back. 

A local education advocacy group said the government could help address the issue of child labor in the state by reaching out to vulnerable communities, especially migrant families.

“Despite laws prohibiting child labor, weak enforcement allows this issue to persist,” Cahaya Society coordinator Asrin Utong told BenarNews.

“Children are subjected to harsh working conditions, long hours, and minimal pay. They are often deprived of their right to education and a safe childhood and the primary motive behind this exploitation is profit, with employers seeking to minimize costs by employing cheap child labor,” he said.


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