Sunday, 20 November 2016

Palm Oil and Children in Indonesia – The Children’s Rights and Business Principles in Action

By Michael Klaus, Chief of Communication and Public Advocacy, Indonesia

A child holds a leaf to cover from the rainfall. ©UNICEF Indonesia / Purnomo 

Jakarta, Indonesia, 20 November 2016
– Palm oil is used in approximately half of all consumer goods, from soap and body lotion to processed foods and biofuels. And because it’s easy to cultivate and cheaper to process than other vegetable oils, global demand continues to rise. That’s good news for Indonesia and Malaysia, who together account for 85% of global production. The palm oil boom, however, comes at a significant cost to the environment. The impacts of clearing land for the planting of oil palm plantations – including deforestation, damaged peatlands and greenhouse gas emissions due to slash-and-burn practices -- has been widely assessed. Little attention has been paid,  however, to the impact of the industry on children, despite the fact that in Indonesia alone 5 million children are affected.

Wanting to know more, UNICEF conducted an assessment – the first of its kind - on how children are impacted by the cultivation of oil palm in Indonesia and Malaysia. The research provides insights into the living conditions of children in production centres like Sumatra and Kalimantan, which due to their relative remoteness, rarely receive much attention. Based on a comprehensive desk research, interviews with workers (many of them women) children, teachers, health personnel and NGO representatives, as well as consultations with plantation mangers and government representatives, the study identifies seven main impact areas and a number of root causes.

Impact areas in Indonesia

  • Maternity Rights and Breastfeeding: In Indonesia, plantation workers on permanent contracts are entitled to three months of paid maternity leave. However, maternity benefits are not always provided in accordance with the law, and at times women are unaware of their entitlements. Casual workers are not entitled to paid maternity leave. They often hide their pregnancies as long as possible, despite the harmful effects of exposure to pesticides and other substances. Nearly all mothers interviewed stopped breastfeeding after 3 months.
  • Child Care: Due to the often vast expanse of plantations and the lack of good, affordable childcare, parents sometimes bring young children to work despite the risks to their health and safety.
  • Health and Nutrition: A common problem on plantations is the lack of access to fresh fruit, vegetables and sources of protein, which leads to an overreliance on processed foods. As a result, doctors confirmed that many children were suffering from malnutrition-related health problems, diarrhoea and asthma.
  • Water, Sanitation and Hygiene: While particularly large plantations usually provide housing for workers, access to adequate supplies of clean water and improved sanitation vary significantly, contributing to diarrhoeal and other diseases.
  • Education: Due to the remoteness of plantations and the difficulty accessing public schools, many companies provide schooling on the ground. However, the quality of education varies widely given the difficulty attracting teachers.
  • Child Protection: The lack of birth registration proved to be an area of particular concern and parents often were not aware of the importance.
  • Child Labour: While NGO reports indicate a certain prevalence of child labour on oil palm plantations, workers interviewed for the study claimed it was not pervasive. However, a quota payment system and a minimum wage calculation that does not consider the needs of a worker’s family often forces workers to rely on help from family members, including children. 

What next?
This study has been part of the roll-out of the Children’s Rights and Business Practices (CRBP) in Indonesia and Malaysia, a framework that was developed by UNICEF, Save the Children and the UN Global Compact based on global consultations. UNICEF Indonesia is now using the findings to bring together producers, buyers along the supply chain and government partners to strengthen existing regulations and certification platforms, and to develop models on how to improve living conditions and opportunities for children living on or near plantations. These can become an important contribution to Indonesia’s efforts towards achieving the SDGs.

One key partner is the global Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a body that certifies compliance with a set of sustainability standards summarized in its Principles and Criteria (P&C). The RSPO was set up in response to widespread consumer criticism about the palm oil industry’s negative environmental track record. RSPO certification is crucial for palm oil producers seeking access to European markets. UNICEF aims to incorporate key children’s rights standards into the P&C.

Further to this, UNICEF has been engaging with relevant Ministries in Indonesia, as well as the Government-led Indonesian Palm Oil (ISPO) certification scheme, to promote the inclusion of child rights criteria in existing sustainability standards.

UNICEF will also work with champion companies in Indonesia to develop models of best practice, such as creating breastfeeding opportunities, strengthening maternity leave policies and helping families obtain birth certificates for their children as part of an employment package, which can be replicated throughout the sector. UNICEF is also working with key international palm oil buyers to help them integrate child rights into their sourcing activities.