Palm oil is contained in roughly half the products on supermarket shelves and in almost three out of every four cosmetic brands, though that can be hard to discern since it appears on labels under more than 200 different names. It’s a primary fat in infant formula. And as they grow, it’s present in many of their favorite foods: It’s in their Pop-Tarts and Cap’n Crunch cereal, Oreo cookies, KitKats, Magnum ice cream, doughnuts and even bubble gum. Palm oil, the highest-yielding vegetable oil, is an important part of Malaysia's and Indonesia's economies and the governments bristle at any form of criticism, saying the industry plays an important role in alleviating poverty. They have banned products touted as “palm oil-free” from supermarket shelves and created slogans calling the crop “God’s gift.”
Child labor has long been a dark stain on the $65 billion global palm oil industry. Though often denied or minimized as kids simply helping their families on weekends or after school, it has been identified as a problem by rights groups, the United Nations and the U.S. government. More and more consumers are demanding to know the provenance of the raw materials in the products they purchase, many companies are quick to issue assurances that they are committed to “sustainable” sourcing. But supply chains often are murky – especially in the palm oil industry – and developing countries that produce commodities in large volumes cheaply often do so by disregarding the environment and minimizing labor costs.
Indonesian government officials said they do not know how many children work in the country’s massive palm oil industry, either full or part time. But the U.N.’s International Labor Organization has estimated 1.5 million children between 10 and 17 years old labor in its agricultural sector. Palm oil is one of the largest crops, employing some 16 million people. In neighboring Malaysia, a newly released government report estimated more than 33,000 children work in the industry there, many under hazardous conditions – with nearly half of them between the ages of 5 and 11. The study was conducted in 2018 did not directly address the large number of migrant children without documents hidden on many plantations in its eastern states, some of whom have never seen the inside of a classroom.
An official estimate says 80,000 children of illegal migrants, mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines, are living in Malaysia's state, Sabah, alone, but some rights groups say the true number could be nearly double that. Without birth certificates and with no path to citizenship, they are essentially stateless – denied access to even the most basic rights, and at high risk of exploitation. Children of migrant parents grow up living in fear they will be separated from their families. They try to remain invisible to avoid attracting the ever-watchful eyes of police, with some keeping backpacks with supplies ready in case they need to flee their houses and sleep in the jungle to avoid raids. Many never leave their remote guarded plantations.
With little or no access to daycare, some young children follow their parents to the fields, where they come into contact with fertilizers and some pesticides that are banned in other countries. As they grow older, they push wheelbarrows heaped with fruit two or three times their weight. Some weed and prune the trees barefoot, while teen boys may harvest bunches large enough to crush them, slicing the fruit from lofty branches with sickle blades attached to long poles. In some cases, an entire family may earn less in a day than $5.
“For 100 years, families have been stuck in a cycle of poverty and they know nothing else than work on a palm oil plantation,” said Kartika Manurung, who has published reports detailing labor issues on Indonesian plantations. “When I … ask the kids what they want to be when they grow up, some of the girls say, ‘I want to be the wife of a palm oil worker.’”
Dan Strechay, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s global outreach and engagement director, said many parents in Indonesia and Malaysia believe it’s the “cultural norm” for their kids to work alongside family members, even if it means pulling them out of school.
Some companies in Indonesia provide rudimentary elementary schooling on plantations, but children who want to continue their studies may find they have to travel too far on poor roads or that they can’t afford it. In Malaysia, the problem is even bigger: Without legal documents, tens of thousands of kids are not allowed to go to government schools at all.
“Why aren’t companies playing a role in setting up schools in collaboration with the government?” asked Glorene Das, executive director of Tenaganita, a Malaysian nonprofit group concentrating on migrant issues for more than two decades. “Why are they encouraging the children to work instead?
Medical care also is woeful, with experts saying poor nutrition and daily exposure to toxic chemicals are undermining child laborers’ health and development. Many Indonesian plantations have their own basic clinics, but access may be available only to full-time workers. Travel to a private doctor or hospital can take hours, and most families cannot afford outside care. Migrant children without documents in Malaysia have no right to health care and often are too scared to seek medical help in villages or cities – even in life-threatening emergencies. Many young palm oil workers also have little understanding about reproductive health. Girls working on remote plantations are vulnerable to sexual abuse, and teenage pregnancies and marriages are common.