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Addressing the roots of child labour in palm oil

By Kamini Visvananthan Human Rights and Social Standards Consultant

In my last post on Labour Day, I shared my thoughts about a topic close to my heart and about the work I do in my role at the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). As we approach June 12, which marks the 19th annual World Day Against Child Labour, I wanted to share my thoughts on another topic which pulls on our heartstrings; the very important and often misconceived issue of child labour in the oil palm sector, and how we are working together with our members and stakeholders to address it.

Since its launch in 2002 by the International Labour Organization (ILO), World Day Against Child Labour aims to raise awareness and spur activism to prevent child labour. It also intends to foster worldwide movement against child labour in any of its forms. Child labour has long been a recognised concern and unfortunately, it has been detected in almost all sectors. ILO states that an estimated 152 million children are already in child labour; 72 million are involved in hazardous work; and seven out of every 10 of these children are working in various agriculture sectors. The palm oil industry, which is no stranger to controversy, is one of them. In palm oil, children are affected in multiple ways - as dependents of workers, members of the community, and at times as workers themselves. It is estimated that as many as five million children could be affected by the palm oil sector in Indonesia alone as dependents of workers. This is in addition to children working in the industry and living in rural communities near oil palm plantations who are also impacted. For major palm oil producing countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, where millions of people depend on this crop for their livelihood, we must pay serious attention to these potentially negative social implications - especially those concerning the wellbeing of children.

It is also imperative for us to realise that child labour does not manifest on its own. No parent would wish for their child to be spending their days in a palm oil plantation instead of being in school. There are many reasons that lead to this and the main one being that they simply cannot afford to survive otherwise.

In 2016, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) conducted a study in Indonesia on the impact of the palm oil sector on women and children. This study was used to inform our Principles and Criteria (P&C) review in 2017 to address gaps and strengthen protection for children by taking a holistic approach to upholding human rights. An example of this can be seen in Principle 6.4 of our current 2018 P&C, which requires a formal policy for the protection of children, including prohibition of child labour and remediation is in place and included into service contracts and supplier agreements. This is backed up by the ILO Tripartite declaration of principles concerning multinational enterprises and social policy (MNE Declaration) as well as many national and international laws regarding the elimination of child labour. The standards also require that stricter verification and age screening processes are employed by the company to safeguard against any risks of child labour.

We also require our members to assess other elements which may impact both the child and parent to ensure that children are not put in a position where they are forced to be at work, and this includes that workers are provided a Decent Living Wage and that adequate education facilities are provided for worker’s children. We have seen our members incorporate enhancements to support their workers such as by providing childcare facilities, creches and after school care so that parents can comfortably work knowing that their children are safe and protected.

In addition to strengthening the criteria in our standards, over the past few months we have been working on four practical guidance documents to help key stakeholders of the palm oil supply chain implement best practices on child rights. We want to work with our members and stakeholders in a transparent environment to improve the business policies and practices for children, working parents, and surrounding communities. These guidance documents will be out for public consultation on RSPO’s website very soon and are available for anyone to provide comments. This public consultation period is your opportunity to help strengthen child rights protection and improve compliance with the RSPO P&C.

Aside from this, due the COVID-19 pandemic we are seeing far reaching impacts on global supply chains and this includes the palm oil sector. These impacts on livelihoods will likely push many vulnerable children into child labour as families struggle to make up for financial shortfalls. According to the ILO, workers are now at even greater risk of facing circumstances that are more difficult and may lead to working longer hours. So, it is crucial that we continue to work together to ensure children are protected.

Take care, stay safe.

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