EU, ILO, and UNICEF address child labour in Malaysia’s Sabah

Public Domain Author: Craig
Mature oil palm plantation in Malaysia.

Child labour is widespread in Sabah’s oil palm plantations in Malaysia, with an estimated 33,600 children aged 5-17 working in the industry. To address this issue, the EU, ILO, and UNICEF have launched a program to promote socio-economic inclusion and protect children’s rights in Tawau’s oil palm plantations. The initiative aims to provide children with better access to education and training opportunities to address the root causes of child labour in the region.

“Eradicating child labour 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 labour. This is why we have joined forces with ILO, UNICEF, and local actors to implement this programme. The EU and its Member States are committed to ensuring sustainable initiatives where no one is left behind,” said Dr Audrey-Anne Rochelemagne, Cooperation Team Leader at the Delegation of the European Union.

Children work on plantations because their families struggle financially due to low wages and the pressure to increase palm fruit production. Limited access to formal education, child protection, and childcare services on oil palm plantations exacerbates the situation.

“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. 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 labour and to promote remedy when it occurs. Partnership with stakeholders on the ground, like we are building today, is urgent for children in Sabah,” said Robert Gass, UNICEF Representative in Malaysia.

Children of oil palm plantation workers face numerous barriers to accessing alternative employment opportunities. These include lack of documentation, discrimination, isolation, and limited access to education. In this context, it is common for young persons aged 16 and above from the plantation community to be engaged as workers in the plantation. Without training and skill enhancement, young workers tend to remain in the high-risk and low-paid sector, making it difficult to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty.

“ILO appreciates the collaboration with the Malaysian government and key stakeholders, including employers, in making collective efforts to address the challenge of child labour. Therefore, we welcome this new initiative and a continuation of our efforts to prevent and eliminate it,” said Panudda Boonpala, ILO Deputy Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

The project will reach children, young persons, as well as their families, both documented and undocumented, living and working in and around oil palm plantations in Tawau, Sabah. The project will run up to June 2025. It will improve data collection of children working in and around oil palm plantations, Increase awareness of child rights issues that are the root causes of child labour among critical stakeholders, Ideate and accelerate solutions to address child rights issues that are the root causes of child labour, Produce replicable education and training model, and Formulate a joint roadmap between the government of Malaysia and the United Nations toward the eradication of child labour and related child rights issues in Sabah.

“Child labour is a severe human rights abuse and a form of labour exploitation, both globally and nationally. It not only prevents children from accessing education that they need for a better future, but also hinders older children from acquiring the skills that could enhance their employability,” added Boonpala.

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