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Indonesian palm oil company denies child labor claims, new allegations arise

Sign warning that a tree is spiked to protect it from illegal logging in Indonesia's Gunung Palung National Park.
School-age children working in an oil palm plantation in Sintang, West Kalimantan. Photo: Hovek

PT Sinar Sawit Andalan (PT SSA), a palm oil plantation company in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province, has denied allegations that the company employs children. PT SSA was responding to a video released earlier this month that showed school-age children carrying polybags at the company’s work site in West Kalimantan’s Sintang district.

A Sintang district government team has investigated the claim and released a progress report confirming the company’s statements. However another resident of the area has since come forward with similar accusations and has asked the provincial government to continue the investigation.

Speaking from a coffee shop in the provincial capital of Pontianak last Wednesday (2/20/13), Aditia Insani Taher, media relations assistant manager at the company, said that PT SSA has never had a policy of using child workers or employing children under the legal working age, in line with relevant labor laws.

Aditia was in Pontianak with Hovek, the Sintang resident who recorded the video. PT SSA had asked Hovek to clarify his footage of the children at the work site.

“The video that I took was real. I never manipulated the images. I also never ordered the children to bring polybags so that I could record them,” he said, speaking from the coffee shop. However, he added, after seeking further information he learned that the children were not working but were playing in the plantation, where they had come with their parents.

Hovek had earlier said that the children were paid Rp 500 ($0.05) per polybag, though the children had allegedly not received their wages for three months.

The Sintang district Social, Manpower and Transmigration Agency has investigated the allegation, sending a team of four people, including department head Florensius Kaha, to the work site on Feb. 12-13. The team spoke with various stakeholders, including the head of Kemangai village, the contractor responsible for filling polybags at the Kemangai and Kesange village work sites, employees of the contractor, the plantation and human resources manager at PT SSA, and the child who was recorded carrying polybags on the video.

In their subsequent progress report, the team said that the company and the polybag contractor had said they never had a policy of employing children, and that the company does not owe Rp 37,000 in back wages to the children, as was earlier claimed. The report said the children were at the work site because they were accompanying their parents, as there was no one to look after them at home.

However the village secretary of Kesange village, Rabab, questioned the Sintang district progress report. Rabab said he has additional evidence of child labor at the plantation, and has asked the provincial government to conduct another investigation.

“How were the facts disproved?” he said. “One of the child workers in the video… is my nephew.”

Rabab met with M. Zeet Hamdy Assovie, the area secretary for the West Kalimantan Provincial Government, on Feb. 18 to discuss the allegations against PT SSA. Rafael Syamsudin, head of the Dayak Uud Danum community and Florensius Kaha from the Sintang district Social, Manpower and Transmigration Agency also attended the meeting.

At the meeting, Rabab submitted as further evidence a video recorded on a cell phone that shows Agus, a resident of Kesange village and the father of a fourth-grade child, revealing that his child is one of around 50 children who regularly work at the PT SSA plantation.

“When there is a holiday my child comes to the company to work. But his name is not entered onto the [company’s] attendance list. There are 50 to 60 child workers. They are not yet of working age, but they hear there is money and they also want to,” said Rabab, translating a statement made by Agus in the video from the Dayak Uud Danum language into Indonesian.

M. Zeet promised at the meeting to return his team to the field to further investigate the allegations.

Aditia also earlier called on the district and provincial manpower agencies to investigate the allegations. In a press release on Feb. 12, the company said they have never employed children in their operations, and that the children in the video may have accidentally been helping their parents near the plantation area because there was no one to watch them at home. Aditia added that the company provides child care facilities and, through its human resources department, guidance on labor-related issues to employees and their family members.

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