Slow progress in the fight against child labour in Indonesia

Slow progress in the fight against child labour in Indonesia

A 13-year-old working on an oil palm plantation on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia.

(Laura Villadiego)

On 26 October, Putri and Surna went, as they did every day, to the fireworks factory where they worked in Tangerang, on the outskirts of Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. That day, however, was not any ordinary day. A spark came into contact with the gunpowder stored at the factory, triggering an explosion that killed 47 workers, including Putri and Surna. Their case was special: Putri was 14 years old and Surna 15, and their work at the factory was illegal.

Their case is not, however, an isolated one. Despite the roadmap published by the Indonesian government in 2015 to eradicate child labour by 2022, the presence of minors in the country’s factories and plantations continues to be an everyday reality, with just four years to go to the deadline.

According to the latest report of the United States Department of Labor, although Indonesia made a “moderate advancement” in the efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labour in 2016, with the formation, for example, of local anti-trafficking task forces in the various provinces, or community-based monitoring inspectors to report incidences of child labour, minors are still performing hazardous tasks on oil palm and tobacco plantations, and are also present in the sex industry.

Under Indonesian law, the minimum working age is 15, although light work can be done as of age 13, as long as it does not stunt or disrupt the child’s physical, mental or social development and is limited to no more than three hours a day. The minimum working age, however, rises to 18 for occupations considered to be hazardous, such as the fireworks factory where Putri and Surna worked.

“The factory owner claims he did not know they were under age, but he is legally obliged to check,” says Andre Yakob Silitonga, one of the lawyers working on the case.

According to UNICEF, an estimated 2.7 million children are involved in some form of child labour in Indonesia, and around half of them are under age 13.

Many of them harvest palm oil, one of the country’s main exports, in the plantations covering millions of hectares. “Child labour is really widespread in the palm oil industry,” says Emma Lierley, forests communications manager with the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), an NGO measuring the social and environmental impact of this industry. “The culture is still very much to look the other way when it comes to child labour.”

According to Lierley, the main reason children are working on the plantations is the “unattainably high quotas”, which the harvesters are only able to meet of they “bring their wives and children to work with them”.

Another industry where child labour is widespread is the powerful tobacco industry. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report published in 2016 denounces the long-term impact of this work on the health and development of these children, owing to the toxins to which they are exposed.

“Child workers are being exposed to serious health and safety risks. The dangers include acute nicotine poisoning from contact with tobacco plants and leaves, and exposure to toxic pesticides and other chemicals,” says the report.

“We haven’t seen many changes [since the report was published]. The kids are still doing very dangerous work. They are still exposed to nicotine and do other work that is considered hazardous,” says Margaret Wurth, a researcher for HRW and the author of the report.

Wurth explains that the short-term effects of frequent contact with the leaves include dizziness, nausea, vomiting and headaches and the long-term effects include lasting consequences on brain development. Moreover, unlike with the palm oil that ends up on supermarket shelves across half the world, as an ingredient of many processed foods, the tobacco plantations most often supply the local market.

Indonesia has one of the world’s highest percentages of smokers: 75.2 per cent of Indonesian men aged over 15 smoke on a regular basis, according to World Health Organisation statistics from 2014.

The domestic work sector, which employs an estimated 85,000 children aged under 18, is another hazardous occupation for minors. “Domestic workers in Indonesia lack basic labour rights protection under the Manpower Act of 2003 as their – largely informal – work is not covered by the law,” explains the 2017 report of the International Labour Organization (ILO) on child domestic labour in the country. According to the ILO report, domestic workers in Indonesia are exposed to a wide range of abuses, such as extremely long working hours, unpaid wages, sexual and physical abuse, forced labour or trafficking.

Laws not enforced

The factory that employed Putri and Surna was a textbook example of the failure to enforce the country’s labour laws. In addition to employing children, the workers were paid less than the minimum wage and were not insured. There are comprehensive laws regulating the world of work but, as is all too often the case, they are not applied on the ground. According to HRW, the laws on child labour largely meet international standards, but “inadequate regulations and poor enforcement of the law, particularly in the small-scale farming sector, leave children at risk”.

One of the main problems is the lack of staff required to conduct inspections. A report by the US Department of Labor points out that its counterpart in Indonesia lacks the financial and the human resources required to adequately enforce the child labour laws in the country, especially in the informal sector.

“There are problems with the inspections because there is corruption,” says Amos Sinmanjuntak, one of the lawyers working on the Putri and Surna case. The same applies to the oil palm plantations, including those certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

“We have documented cases where the plantations are given the heads up that the auditors will be coming [and so they are taken to very specific areas of the plantations],” says Lierley of the RAN, which reports on labour abuses, such as the exploitation of child labour on the RSPO certified plantations of Indofood, which used to be a regular supplier for PepsiCo. “They have taken some sort of cosmetic steps [to eradicate child labour], but the root causes remain,” continues Lierley, referring to the unreasonably high quotas.

Although Indonesia’s Ministry of Manpower did not respond to Equal Times’ requests for information on the progress made in the fight to eradicate child labour, it would seem that they are far too off target to be able to meet the deadline.

“[The government is] trying to take steps to address this issue, but it is not fast enough and another tobacco season is coming,” says Wurth. Meanwhile, until concrete measures are taken, thousands of Indonesian children like Putri and Surna will continue to be exposed to long working days and hazardous working conditions, placing their development and even their lives at risk.

This article has been translated from Spanish.