In January of this year, we published a blog highlighting practical steps that palm oil companies can take to respect child rights and address child labor in their operations and supply chains. In June 2021, the ILO and UNICEF reported that the number of children in child labor had increased from 152 to 160 million globally—and these numbers are expected to rise as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect Southeast Asia. COVID-19 is expected to further obstruct efforts to eliminate child labor as more children are expected to drop out of school and fall into hazardous work.

We can see these impacts playing out in the palm oil industries in Indonesia and Malaysia. Companies wishing to eradicate child labor from their supply chains may be best served by looking beyond their own value chains to the wider context in which they source and manufacture products and by partnering with other actors to address structural drivers and systemic issues which require an industry-wide approach.

Why Industry Collaboration Is Critical

Companies cannot tackle child labor in isolation, given its entrenched nature and complexity. While greater progress is needed on engagement and collaboration with governments and civil society, forming partnerships across the palm oil industry can be an impactful way to systemically address the issue. Here’s why:

  • Industry partnerships can be integral to the success of strategies needed to leverage companies and their suppliers to prevent or mitigate child rights violations through promoting awareness and understanding of complex issues, encouraging others to act, and developing solutions together.
  • Greater collaboration between businesses can identify and scale effective solutions and facilitate shared learnings while avoiding potential duplicated efforts. Individual company responses may not be as effective in tackling an issue rooted in poverty, for example.
  • Increased collaboration can enable companies to share the risk and create a more level playing field.

A wide range of voluntary, business-led, industry-wide, and cross-industry initiatives has emerged in recognition of this need for greater collaboration.

How Palm Oil Companies Can Act on Child Labor

While the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights acknowledge the complexity of addressing human rights issues, they encourage companies to engage with a wide range of stakeholders. In addition to conducting human rights due diligence in their own operations and supply chains, as well as adhering to national and international laws and standards, companies can address complex issues such as child labor in several ways:

  • Raise standards through the creation of industry guidance on due diligence, remediation, and monitoring to define corporate behavior regarding child rights violations.
  • Work with relevant, local stakeholders to understand risks, look at potential solutions, or address a specific impact. For example, companies could partner with peers and local civil society organization (CSO) networks to lobby the government to make legislative changes. They could also advocate for a national action plan on child labor.
  • Use leverage to engage with less resourced companies within supply chains and build capacity, raise awareness, and share best practices and lessons learned through training. Companies could work in partnership with leading organizations to develop training and/or guidance for suppliers on child rights, challenges, and practical solutions.  
  • They could also join a leadership platform on child labor to build on and strengthen existing efforts for collective action and practical solutions.

At BSR, we work with key players in the palm oil industry, including producers and buyers, to tackle child labor by integrating children’s rights into plantation policies and practices. Last year, we supported the development of agribusiness group Wilmar’s Child Protection Implementation Manual, in collaboration with global buyers. This year, we’re continuing our work with Wilmar—in collaboration with The Centre for Child Rights and Business and the Earthworm Foundation and with the support of global palm oil buyers— to pilot and test the manual’s practical applicability with a participating supplier and share lessons learned with Wilmar’s supplier base and the wider industry. A key deliverable of this project will include a manual, which will be adapted for the Malaysia context aimed at addressing complex issues related to foreign workers.

The manuals will not only be used as a guideline for the industry to respect and promote child rights, but more importantly, the pilot also demonstrates proactive steps toward risk management, accountability, collective action and building a shared understanding of how to address child labor in different geographical contexts. This is an important opportunity to share lessons learned within the Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil industries with a view to expand learnings across other sectors. As we move into the next phase of work, we will continue to engage palm oil industry players to leverage collaborative efforts to invest in sustainable change for children.

For more information on BSR’s work on business and human rights, including children’s rights, please reach out to connect with our team.