Forced labor, as defined by the International Labor Organization, refers to situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as accumulated debt (aka, “debt bondage”), retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities. Child labor occurs on palm plantations when children are used by parents to assist in meeting aggressive daily quotas. Children of plantation workers will also gravitate to this type of work if they are non-citizens and unable to attend school. Plantation work is dangerous and detrimental to the health and proper development of children. They are exposed to pesticides that are illegal in other parts of the world and don’t have access to personal protective equipment to minimize exposure. Asia and Asia Pacific are responsible for 41% of the global estimate of child labor with the majority of child laborers (38%) being made up of 5 to 11 year olds (ILO, Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, 2016).
In Malaysia, foreign workers supply more than 20 percent of the workforce. The US State department notes there are approximately 2 million documented migrant workers in Malaysia and estimates even more undocumented workers exist. Malaysia is the top destination for Indonesian migrant workers. The Indonesian government estimates 1 million Indonesians who are working in Malaysia are either undocumented or have overstayed their visas. Other source countries are Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Burma and the Philippines. Low economic opportunities in their home countries, the geographic proximity of Malaysia and Malaysia’s arrival into an upper middle class country fuel both the demand and supply of the foreign labor in Malaysia.
The economic desperation of migrant workers and the Malaysian legal system both serve to create an environment that is ripe for exploitation. Migrant workers are expected to sign off on employment contracts even when they are not written in their native language. Often times these workers are illiterate anyhow. In these instances, a thumb print is used in lieu of an actual signature. They are unaware that by signing this document, they have most likely agreed to surrender their passport to their employer. Even though this practice is legal, confiscation of passports is an effective means of controlling movement and a classic technique that is used in human trafficking. These workers have most likely also agreed not to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining. The restriction of the formation of labor unions is illegal. Although employers are required to pay the national minimum wage, this type of work is typically paid by the weight of fruit that gets collected or amount of fertilizer that is distributed. Employers set aggressive daily targets and if they are not met, workers are penalized through pay deductions. If unripe fruit is collected, there are more pay deductions. Transportation fees and employment fees are also deducted from their pay. If necessary, workers are expected to work overtime without pay to meet daily quotas. If workers want to go home, they are threatened with termination. If they get fired, they are cannot work for another employer and must leave the country. If they complain about lack of pay or some other abuse, it can take up to 6 months for their case to be heard in court. Malaysian law only allows them to remain in the country without employment for 3 months. They also can’t work during this time. Foreign workers are forbidden from bringing family with them or having romantic relations while in the country. Even so, children are born to migrant workers. Unless they are born to a Malaysian mother, these children are stateless, unable to go to school or utilize the free healthcare available to citizens. This creates a population of incredibly vulnerable people that have even fewer choices than their impoverished parents and are even more apt to become victims of trafficking.
In Indonesia, 10% of the population works outside the home municipality in different parts of Indonesia (Vartiala, S., et al, 2014). Indonesia is the largest producer of palm oil with production reaching 35 million tonnes per year. Indonesian law sets the maximum allowable work week hours at 40 and overtime is limited to 14 hours per week. Oil palm harvesters are paid on a “piece rate” rather than hourly rate. If harvesters don’t meet their targets, their base pay is deducted regardless of number of hours worked. Overtime pay and work hour restrictions are not adhered to when workers are paid on a piece rate. The International Labor Organization (of which Indonesia is a member) states these types of practices amount to forced labor. Indonesia does not allow anyone under the age of 18 to be employed in the “worst forms” of child labor which Indonesia defines as those that are harmful to health, safety or morals. Working on oil palm plantations is harmful to health and safety of children as the work requires heavy labor, repetitive motions and possible exposure to pesticide. By Indonesia’s own definition, anyone under the age of 18 should not be working on a palm plantation. In its 2016 expose, Amnesty International interviewed children on Indonesian palm plantations that began working as young as 8 years old. Child labor is illegal but nonetheless continues with the encouragement and knowledge of plantation supervisory staff. The plantations that were investigated by Amnesty International test the blood of its workers to monitor chemical exposure. If irregularities are found, workers are not given a copy of the lab work and are simply moved to other jobs. One woman interviewed in the study stated she was splashed in the face with Gramoxone (aka Paraquat). She lost her vision in the exposed eye, experiences headaches, swelling and dizziness since the incident. Personal protective equipment would have prevented this exposure. Gramoxone is forbidden in Europe and can only be used by a certified applicator in the US. This material has been linked to the development of Parkinson’s disease. (Kamel, F., 2013)
Amnesty International. The Great Palm Oil Scandal: Labour Abuses Behind Big Brand Names-Executive Summary. 2016.
Gianmmarinaro, M., 2015, Report of the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children, A/HRC/29/38/Add.1, OHCHR, Geneva, Switzerland
Kamel, F. (16 Aug 2013). Paths from Pesticides to Parkinson's. Science 341(6147), pp. 722-723. DOI: 10.1126/science.1243619
US State Department, TIP 2017 Report, Indonesia, pp. 208-211
US State Department, TIP 2017 Report, Malaysia, pp. 264-267
Varatiala, S., Ristimaki, S. The Law of the Jungle: Corporate Responsibility of Finnish Palm Oil Purchases. 2014.
Source: Wall Street Journal 2016
Source: VOA News 2016
Source: PBS NewsHour