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EU, ILO, And UNICEF Launch Programme To Address Child Labour In Sabah

A joint initiative by EU, ILO, and UNICEF aims to enhance access to education and training opportunities for children working and living in Sabah’s oil palm plantations.

Robert Gass, UNICEF Representative in Malaysia, with children in Tawau, Sabah last year. Photo from Unicef Malaysia Facebook post dated June 21, 2023.

TAWAU, June 12 – On the occasion of World Day Against Child Labour, the European Union (EU), International Labour Organization (ILO), and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have joined forces to launch an 18-month programme aimed at promoting socioeconomic inclusion and protecting the rights of children in Tawau’s oil palm plantations.

The initiative seeks to provide these children with better access to education and training opportunities, helping to address the root causes of child labour in the region.

Child labour in Sabah’s oil palm plantations is widespread. Many children work to assist their parents, risking their physical safety, health, education, and development.

The 2018 Employment Survey in Plantations by the Malaysian government estimated that 33,600 children aged between 5 and 17 work in the oil palm industry, with Sabah accounting for 58.8 per cent (about 19,800 children) of this total.

“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 ensure sustainable initiatives where no one is left behind,” said Audrey-Anne Rochelemagne, Cooperation Team Leader of the EU delegation.

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 and to child protection and childcare services on oil palm plantations worsen 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 access 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.

“We therefore welcome this new initiative and a continuation of our joint 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, and aims to:

  • 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 key stakeholders.
  • Ideate and accelerate solutions to address child rights issues that are the root causes of child labour.
  • Produce replicable education and training model.
  • Formulate a joint roadmap between 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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