A New Approach to Child Labor Prevention and Remediation in Malaysia

Panelists at the Child Rights Action Hub Launch in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.

SAI’s MY Voice initiative is a 4.5-year project running from 2021 to 2026 that seeks to increase worker voice in private sector social compliance systems, increase access to remedy for forced labor and child labor, and help improve communication and coordination between local actors to better identify, remediate, and prevent cases of forced and child labor within Malaysia’s palm oil and garment industries.

To support businesses and worker communities in reducing child labor risks in palm oil supply chains and accessing low-barrier remediation services, MY Voice has launched the Child Rights Action Hub, the first of its kind in Malaysia, on 12 June 2024. The Action Hub aims to build a community-based, long-term prevention and remediation system in collaboration with local stakeholders. We spoke to Jia Yen Lai, the Project Director for SAI’s MY Voice project.

Q: What are some of the root causes of child labor in Malaysia’s palm oil sector?

Over 30,000 children are estimated to work in this sector in Malaysia, working in palm oil plantations and on smaller farms. They assist their parents or can be employed in hazardous work such as slashing, harvesting, loading, and spraying. In Malaysia, children are only required to receive six years of mandatory education until age 12. The minimum age for light work is 13, and 15 for full-time work. This means that while children can continue on to secondary school after turning 12, many risk ending up in child labor. Additionally, the remoteness of plantations and the lack of educational facilities often leaves children with no options for schooling, making them more vulnerable to child labor.

The risks of child labor across all industries in Malaysia are heightened by poverty, unequal access to social support systems, and complex migration dynamics, particularly for migrant and stateless children who lack documentation. It takes a whole system to support a child’s education and ensure that they thrive during their childhood. Addressing these challenges requires collective efforts, bringing together the awareness and willingness of multiple stakeholders to agree on the goals and how to achieve them.

Q: How will the Child Rights Action Hub address these systematic causes of child labor? 

The Action Hub is building a community-based, long-term prevention and remediation system that is guided by the best interests of children. By leveraging existing resources, it seeks to address gaps by aligning existing government and non-government initiatives to protect children. The Action Hub is the first of its kind in Malaysia, which does have child protection mechanisms in place, but no formal structure to remediate cases of child labor.

The Action Hub embraces a collaborative structure, seeking input from partners such as case managers, service providers, and companies. Using a child-centric approach, it will provide guidelines to standardize remediation processes.

At the individual level, this means removing a child from child labor to provide safer options, or offering non-hazardous work if they are above the minimum working age. 

At the employer level, this includes developing corrective action plans to prevent further child labor risks, such as through policy development, system changes, and capacity building.  

At the community level, this involves tackling the root causes of child labor, such as access to education.  

Q: How will the Action Hub involve businesses in driving child rights?

The Action Hub facilitates collaborative action among businesses, enabling brands, retailers, and local plantations to participate in joint activities and address child labor risks in their palm oil supply chain, including in the most remote areas. These efforts will involve financial support from the private sector through establishing a sustainable remediation fund to support children in child labor situations. The Hub will also bring private sector actors together in a unified and integrated case management system, increasing transparency, awareness, and opportunities for collaboration up and across the supply chain. Technical support from the Action Hub, such as awareness-raising, solutions to remove children from child labor, support to implement corrective action plans, and tackling root causes, will further equip businesses to drive child rights throughout the supply chain.

Prioritizing private sector involvement, along with utilizing existing resources, is essential to ensuring long-term support and solutions for children and their families. We will also train teachers, community members, and other civil society stakeholders to become case managers, service providers, and child rights advocates. These actors will support children, their families, and companies in remediation processes.

By doing this, our hope is that the Action Hub not only provides immediate support to children and families in child labor situations but also improves awareness and capacity among upstream actors, contributing to the reduction and prevention of child labor and its risks in the palm oil supply chain.

Q: What are some other ways that the MY Voice project seeks to address child labor and forced labor in Malaysia?

MY Voice uses a multistakeholder approach to address these issues in both the palm oil and garment sectors in Malaysia. We provide awareness-raising training to local civil society organizations, unions, worker communities, and relevant government agencies, and facilitate the development and implementation of action plans to encourage ownership of these initiatives. Additionally, we provide customized training and technical assistance to palm oil and garment companies and suppliers, creating tools and guidelines to improve their social compliance systems.

Another important component of our work is strengthening worker voices in these sectors.  MY Voice’s proposed social compliance systems embeds worker engagement in the implementation and monitoring processes to achieve this. We are also piloting a worker voice technology, the Just Good Work app, with workers and companies. The app aims to engage and inform workers about their rights, empowering them to make informed decisions and helping businesses strengthen responsible recruitment practices using open-access technology.

We will continue to collaborate with the private sector, government, civil society organizations, and worker communities to explore other innovative methods for enhancing worker representation and integrating worker experiences to tackle child labor and forced labor in Malaysia’s palm oil and garment supply chains.

Q: Looking ahead, are there other MY Voice activities that you are excited about?

MY Voice is committed to collaboration with other initiatives with a shared aim of bringing sustained and long-term impacts to worker rights. I am particularly excited about upcoming activities in which we will partner with other initiatives and local stakeholders, including joint training workshops and community advocacy events. I am inspired by the increasing number of initiatives aimed at improving the lives of workers and their families in Malaysia, and I eagerly anticipate MY Voice’s contributions to strengthening local systems that can support both workers and businesses to thrive together.

To learn more about the MY Voice project, please visit: https://myvoiceproject.org/