PETALING JAYA: Stakeholders in the Malaysian palm oil industry have refuted a report that child labour is prevalent on plantations across Malaysia and Indonesia.
The report by Associated Press (AP) details the scale of child labour in the palm oil sector and the poor conditions they are subjected to, including strenuous physical labour, no access to education and exposure to potentially harmful chemicals.
Ahmad Parveez Ghulam, director-general of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, told FMT the report was “one-sided” and painted a damaging picture of the industry.
He said it featured interviews with just “a few people”, and questioned the use of what he believes to be staged visual elements.
“There are a lot of questions about the videos and photos of the children. We could only see loose fruits, which AP called palm kernels, and no bunches, as well as fresh frond piles, indicating they were more like planned photos and videos.
“I also don’t believe that one girl that was featured, claimed to be in Sabah, could carry the bunch she was holding and would wear such nice clothing.”
Parveez also said it was unfair to categorise Malaysia and Indonesia together, adding that the mandatory Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil certification that has been established covers workers’ rights and subjects certified producers to regular audits.
“There have been no issues reported regarding the abuse of children in the Malaysian oil palm plantation and smallholdings sector since January 2015,” he said.
Should an issue regarding child labour arise, he said, it would be reported to the authorities so that “serious action” could be taken against the plantation owner.
National Union of Plantation Workers executive secretary A Navamukundan said it was unlikely many of the cases detailed in the report involved plantations in Peninsular Malaysia.
He said it was also highly unlikely that foreign workers in the sector would be allowed to bring dependents with them.
Even in East Malaysia, where it could be a more common occurrence, it would likely only be a significant issue for plantations along the Indonesian border on Borneo, he said.
“We know of some situations where half a family will be on the Indonesian side, and the other half in Malaysia, so it’s a very fluid situation there.”
Navamukundan also said the concept of “family employment”, particularly on smaller operations, should not be categorised as child labour, as young people helping with the family business do not equate to exploitation associated with child labour.
A representative from the Malaysian Palm Oil Council declined to comment on the report.
AP, citing a study conducted in 2018, said Malaysia had more than 33,000 children working in the palm oil industry, with nearly half of them between the ages of five and 11.
It detailed the cycle of poverty many young people on plantations were trapped in, without the education to escape their surroundings and with limited exposure to life outside the plantation.