The goal to end child labour by 2025 is seemingly at a standstill. The pandemic and its economic impacts have pushed many families to encourage their children to be a part of the workforce earlier than is necessary. To date, there are 160 million child workers worldwide, a jump of at least 8 million from the amount of 152 four years ago.
Alarmingly, at least 9 million more children would possibly be driven to work at the end of 2022 if countries don’t buck up when it comes to their poverty mitigation measures, adding to a total of 169 million child workers.
As poverty rises, schools close and the availability of social services decreases, more children are pushed into the workforce. As we reimagine the world post-COVID, we need to make sure that children and their families have the tools they need to weather similar storms in the future. Quality education, social protection services and better economic opportunities can be game changers. – Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director
In Malaysia, the process is hindered by the lack of urgency and focus on the issue at hand. Some believed it is common for children to be working alongside their parents.
“Every time, when there is a school holiday, this is a common practice in Felda and small plantations.” Ahmad Parveez Ghulam Kadir, the director-general of the MPOB 
Others believe otherwise, that children under the age of 12 should not be working at all.
Children below 12 should never be allowed to work “even if it’s at a pasar malam” because those are precious growing years. Helping with house chores is fine because it’s good training but under no circumstances should kids be out working. Teenagers can work but not at hard or harmful labour. They cannot be exposed to risky and hazardous environments. – Datuk Dr Raj Karim, Malaysian Council for Child Welfare president 
In addition to this, limited publicly shared data on children forced to work and their working conditions make it difficult for intervention to take place. UNICEF also raised the notion that there is an involvement of an omniscient third party (i.e. corporate stakeholders or the government). Also, alluding to money changing hands between authority figures to ensure the issue lays dormant.
What Needs To Be Done To Progress?
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UNICEF recognise that there needs to be a change in tactics to reverse the effect of the pandemic on the increasing number of child labourers suggesting few ways to get back on track.
- Increased coverage of the country’s social protection, which includes universal child benefits
- Providing free quality schooling to encourage children to return to school
- Decreasing the rate of unemployment amongst the lower-income group
- Ending harmful gender norms and discrimination that leads to child labour
- Investing more in child protection and agricultural development in rural areas.
In relation to Malaysia’s situation, there is also a need for data to be publicly shared.
With the availability and accessibility of data, the grassroots organisation can come hand in hand with government bodies and industry players in tackling the issue of child labour.
With law statutory, there shouldn’t be loopholes that give room for exploitations to take place and that the Children and Young Persons (Employment) Act 1966 (Act 350) requires amendments to prevent child abuse. Law enforcement to safeguard child labourers under the Children and Young Persons Act (Employment) Act 1966 is also a concern. Further, the raised issue of corruption among authority figures entails another layer of difficulties in successfully resolving child labour in Malaysia.
Alleviating Poverty Is Key
The main reason behind child labour is poverty and the dire need for money that propelled children to work and encouraged parents to remove their children from schools. This rings true as a study conducted in Tawau, Sabah among lower-income families, only 7.7% of parents would encourage their children to work yet these families are only earning an average of RM700 per month.
The fate of the urban poor during the pandemic sees many families living closer to the edge with 7 out of 10 families hanging on by a thread with no savings to tide them over. With no stable income, many children would be pushed to work in informal employment putting them in direct contact to being exploited.
The movement control order (MCO) may have driven many children to take up employment to assist their parents financially. They may also be exploited by some employers due to the extraordinary circumstances of MCO. – Prof Datuk Noor Aziah Mohd Awal, Children’s Commissioner of Suhakam 
This is aligned with the ILO and UNICEF recommendation, which is to provide more job opportunities to the lower-income and vulnerable groups. By doing so, improves the livelihood of the families and reduces the incidences of children joining the workforce. The call for better social protection coverage, which includes providing universal child benefit is key – as without it, the projected numbers of child labourers by the end of 2022 would increase from 160 to 200 million children.
Children Have The Right To Be Educated
A temporary gain is undeniably more desirable when it comes to survival as opposed to long-term accomplishments that education promises. However, the long-term accomplishments may not even be available for many children from marginalised communities such as the refugees, migrants and the stateless.
In East Malaysia, the children of plantation workers grew up in the streets and 50% followed the path of their parents becoming a labourer at a young age as education is denied to them. Some who had been a part of alternative learning centres drop out due to life circumstances or are unable to cope with studying; that is the case of Mohammed and Wati.
Although education in Malaysia is free, there are underlying costs such as transportation, uniforms and books. Children from marginalised communities often would have to forgo schooling as earning money is attributable to their survival rather than attending classes. It is not just a matter of accessibility but also the affordability of it that would ensure children stay in school.
The government subsidizes school fees, but parents may not be able to pay for the costs of school uniforms, books and supplies or afford the missed-opportunity cost of child labor. Low income families repeatedly told me that fees or costs associated with education, even as low as RM 1, were enough to keep their children out of school. – Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur
Industry Players Stepping Up
On a global scale, we have seen the fast-fashion industry pledging that they are against child labour. Interestingly, the industry players associated with child labour are the ones who are involved in curbing the issue. It is akin to crying over spilt milk, a cosmetic solution or the Malay proverb equivalent “sudah terhantuk baru tergadah”, making many speculate whether the issue they have attested against on media has some weight to it.
Child labourers are often involved in the agriculture sector, either by picking up loose palm fruits or ploughing the field alongside their parents. True to the recommendation of ILO and UNICEF, it is with the improvement in agricultural machinery that it is necessary to reduce the involvement of children in the workforce.
Thus far, organisations such as Nestle, Reckitt, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in Malaysia are working towards eliminating child labour through round table discussions involving different stakeholders. The round table discussion aims to find ways to ensure children aren’t part of the work chain, hinting that there is a possibility that children are part of the current workforce.
Organisations Combatting Child Labour
There are organisations out there attempting to combat the incidences of child labour. The NGOs out there fight to ensure children regardless of their status are protected. Many persevere despite the threats of being closed down and the backlashes by the members of the public.
We have compiled a list of organisations and their roles in combating child labour in their main areas of interest:
- Tenaganita, founded in 1991 to safeguard the rights of women working in factories and plantations. Over the years, the organisation has proactively advocated and protected the rights of the marginalised communities such as refugees, trafficked persons in Malaysia from being exploited or abused.
- Yayasan Chow Kit, a registered non-profit organisation in Malaysia is a 24/7 centre that identifies the needs of the children requiring help and finding the best way to assist them.
- SUKA Society, an NGO preserving the best interest of children through providing justice to the children involved in trafficking as well as empowering children in need.
- The Earthworm Foundation (EF) have taken the first steps in advocating and providing suggestions for a child labour-free work chain in palm oil plantations.
- Etania Schools have remarkably ensured quality education is given to the marginalised children in Sabah
- Humana Child Aid Society has established schools in plantation areas in collaboration with small and medium-sized enterprises in Sabah.
- Dignity For Children Foundation (DFC) accepts children of different backgrounds with open arms and provides them with education. The Foundation also empowers them with vocational skills. To date, DFC owns multiple social enterprises run by their students such as eat x Dignity, bake x Dignity
At the same time, as an individual, we can always play a part to put a stop to child labour. If you have witnessed incidences that indicate a child is forced to work – alert the Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat through Talian Kasih: 15999
Child labour in Malaysia despite the lack of exposure is a prevailing issue amongst the marginalised communities. There are hidden depths to the matter than many have realised and previously we have highlighted the reality of child labour in Malaysia. Previously, we compiled the stories from the ground, of child labourers in Malaysia and the scars they carry. For a thorough read on child labour in Malaysia – dive into our whitepaper.
Explore our sources:
- UNICEF (2021). Child Labour: Global estimates 2020, trends and the road forward. Link
- UNICEF. (2020). COVID-19 may push millions more children into child labour – ILO and UNICEF. Link
- K.Tee. (2021). Report: MPOB suggests cultural differences to blame for child labour allegations behind US import ban on palm oil-related products. Malay Mail. Link
- C.Chin. (2015). All work and no play. The Star. Link
- UNICEF (2020). Situation Analysis of Women and Children in Malaysia. Link
- The Sun Daily. (2020). Amend Act 350 To Prevent Child Labour Abuse, says Suhakam. Link
- R. A. Aziz & S. Iskandar. (2013). Working Children and Knowledge of Right to Education: A Study of Child Labour in Sabah, Malaysia. Link
- UNICEF. (2021). Families on the Edge: Issue 4: Two-Steps Forward, One Step Back: The New Normal for Malaysia’s Urban Poor? Link
- Aflatoun International. (2018). PARTNER OF THE WEEK: HUMANA CHILD AID SOCIETY SABAH. Link
- United Nations Human Rights Office Of The High Commisioner (2019). Statement by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, on his visit to Malaysia, 13-23 August 2019. Link
- Earthworm. (2021). A webinar on child rights in the Malaysian palm oil industry. Link