Palm oil giant vows to reform after Indonesian child labor probe

KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The world’s biggest palm oil processor Wilmar has launched fresh measures to improve conditions of thousands of children living on its plantations, but campaigners said on Wednesday that it was not doing enough to tackle widespread use of child labor.

Wilmar was targeted in an Amnesty International probe last year which found children as young as eight were working in “hazardous” conditions on plantations run by the Singapore-based firm and its suppliers in Indonesia.

Wilmar pledged to upgrade and improve access to schools in and around its palm oil estates last week, in a written child protection policy that it said was a first for the industry.

“The whole goal is to ensure children in our community are taken care of in the best way,” Wilmar’s group sustainability general manager, Perpetua George, said on Wednesday.

“The issues cropping up a lot really are around the care and well-being of children,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Indonesia.

The policy would protect some 10,000 children on Wilmar’s plantations in Indonesia, Malaysia and Africa, she said.

But Amnesty’s Lauren Armistead said it was “disappointing” that Wilmar failed to address the root cause of child labor.

Rights groups have said parents who harvest palm fruit often have to seek help from their children, who also live on the plantation, to meet firms’ high harvesting quotas.

“The quota and penalty system ... is the reason why parents take their children to work. That has not been recognized at all in this child protection policy,” campaigner Armistead said by phone from London.

The Amnesty investigation also alleged other labor abuses, including working long hours for low pay without adequate safety equipment. It found at least nine global consumer companies were sourcing from these Indonesian plantations.

Over 1.5 million children are thought to be working in tobacco, rubber and oil palm plantations in Indonesia, according to the International Labor Organization.