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Child labor and palm oil in Indonesia

The Ankarafa skeleton frog. The frogs are called 'skeleton' because of their semi-transparent skins. Photo by: Gonçalo M. Rosa.
Bimo. Photo by: Gonçalo M. Rosa.


Meet Bimo Kencana Arief. At 13 years old, this Indonesian middle school student is not spending his afternoons doing homework, helping around the house, or getting into trouble with the neighborhood children. Instead, Bimo is working up a sweat, hauling heavy oil palm fruits from the trees to a waiting truck. If he moves quickly, he can help his father earn up to $2 between 3:00 pm and dark—money which will help pay for school for himself and his two siblings.

“Ever since my first year of Junior High I have helped my father. If we can load two trucks in one day, we can earn 50,000 rupiah ($4.00),” Bimo told Mongabay-Indonesia while carrying palm fruits on a plantation near Urungpane Village in North Sumatra. He and at least 10 other children work as day laborers on the plantation owned by PTPN III—the state-run enterprise which operates palm oil estates throughout Indonesia.

“Three years ago there was heavy machinery to move the palm fruit. Now, those are gone,” said Bimo’s father, Sulistyo Sadu as he took a quick break to sip water. “Maybe the equipment was too expensive, while human-power is cheap.”

He previously worked in a butter factory in the nearby city of Pematang Siantar, but when the company went bankrupt he struggled to find employment elsewhere. Finally, he landed a position as a palm fruit porter where he gets paid by the truck load. His son’s assistance after school helps ensure they can cover basic household expenses.

Bimo’s situation is fairly typical in a country where the cultural norm of children helping out their parents casts a gray haze over the issue of under-aged employment. According to government statistics, over 2.3 million children were working in Indonesia in 2010. Of those aged 10-14, 61.6% were employed by the agricultural industry.


Young plantation worker in Riau, Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler



Although Indonesia has now ratified all international treaties on child labor—including the 1973 International Labor Organization Convention No 138 which set the minimum age for employment at 15—the existence of laws and enforcement at the regional and local level still vary widely. Possibly because many people believe it is acceptable for a child to help the family economically, as long as that work does not interfere with the child’s ability to get an education.

“There is a strong culture of children helping their parents in Indonesia, and it is hard to break,” said Suhartono, a spokesman for Indonesia’s Manpower and Transmigration Ministry told the Jakarta Globe in 2013. He was speaking in response to a US Labor Department report stating that the country had made “significant advancement” during 2012 in combating the worst forms of child labor, but recognized that under-aged employment was still an issue. In the following year, the report downgraded Indonesia to having made only “moderate advancement.”

“We need to convince parents … that children are supposed to study and not work,” Suhartono said—a sentiment difficult for children like Bimo to understand: children who must work in order to afford to study.

SOURCE: Ayat S Karokaro. Kala Anak-anak jadi Buruh Harian Pemanggul Sawit. Mongabay-Indonesia. December 17, 2014