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Growing Demand for Palm Oil Drives Malaysia to Employ Child Migrant Workers

February 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Special correspondent Steve Sapienza exposes the human cost of palm oil, a cheap ingredient used in many processed foods. In Malaysia, the world's second largest exporter of the oil, producers employ child migrant workers to keep up with demand. The story is part of a collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: the very high cost of a very common product.

A growing demand for palm oil used in cooking and many processed foods is driving one country to harvest it using migrant workers, many of them children.

Special correspondent Steve Sapienza traveled to Malaysia, one of the world’s second largest exporter of the oil. His story is part of a collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

STEVE SAPIENZA: In Malaysia’s Sabah province, migrant workers hustle to keep up with the rising global demand for palm oil. Made from the fruit of oil palm tree, it is now found in more than half of all the products sold in U.S. supermarkets, from cookies to cosmetics.

This labor-intensive work has changed little since the 1960s, when the government first pushed the expansion of palm oil production. Today, palm oil is Malaysia’s top crop, netting $25 billion dollars a year, and driving the spread of palm oil plantations into the wilderness.

The once sleepy port town of Lahad Datu is at the epicenter of Malaysia’s palm oil boom. The local population has doubled over the past 15 years, and real estate prices are soaring in what has been dubbed Palm City.

NASRUN DATUK MANSUR, Sabah State Assemblyman: This is the catalyst for all kinds of business activities.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Nasrun Datuk Mansur is a state assemblyman and aide to Sabah’s chief minister. His government is expanding the port in Lahad Datu to include palm oil refineries, as well as fertilizer and biofuel plants.

NASRUN DATUK MANSUR: Oil palm is the basis of our economy, because it is readily available, and, of course, it is cheap, and it’s cheap to produce oil palm, actually, you know, compared to other — other oils.

STEVE SAPIENZA: One big reason the oil is so cheap to produce is the steady supply of migrant labor. The palm oil sector relies on some 500,000 foreign workers to feed global demand for the product and fuel Malaysia’s economic prosperity.

For decades, Indonesian and Filipino workers have migrated to Sabah to harvest the palm oil fruit. Leanory Marcos arrived with his parents from Indonesia when he was just 12 years old. Without documents to prove his residency, he could not enroll in school. So, for the past five years, he has toiled on the plantations, earning about seven dollars a day.

Fatma Tabbo was studying in Indonesia until last year, but she stopped when her family ran out of money.

FATMA TABBO, Malaysia: I’m working here, cutting and clearing palm branches. But now I don’t have money. How can you enter school if have no money?

STEVE SAPIENZA: Leanory and Fatma’s stories are similar to that of an estimated 50,000 migrant children without access to education in Sabah.

ALISON NERI, Good Shepherd: They have no papers. They cannot work legally. So, in a way, they are invisible.

STEVE SAPIENZA: As director of a social welfare charity in Sabah, Alison Neri has seen what happens to migrant children who don’t go to school.

ALISON NERI: There’s nowhere else for them to go, so the only thing for them is for them to help their parents, to supplement the income of the family.

STEVE SAPIENZA: More of the world’s working children are employed in agriculture than in any other sector, according to the International Labor Organization. In Sabah, surveys show that more than half of the children without schooling end up working as child laborers.

Fatma’s father, Mappi Tabbo, and his family of five children, ages five to 18, live and work on a secluded 60-acre plantation about one hour by car from Lahad Datu. Since arriving, the family has faced a common problem: where to enroll their kids in school.

Ten years after moving from Indonesia for a better-paying job, the 41-year-old still risks arrest and possible deportation if caught by police. For him, sending the kids to a Malaysian school in town is not an option.

AEGILE FERNANDEZ, Tenaganita: A lot of migrants come in with the children, or they have newborn children there. They have no documents. They have no access to education no access even to the outside world.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Aegile Fernandez grew up in a migrant family on a Malaysian tea plantation. She is now program director of Tenaganita, a Malaysia-based nonprofit group that assists migrant workers.

AEGILE FERNANDEZ: If you look back even from our independence, right — right up to after independence, education was for all. There was no question of whether you had a document. So everyone could enter into any school that was nearest to you.

STEVE SAPIENZA: According to the latest census, migrants, mostly from Indonesia, now comprise nearly one-third of the 3.2 million population in Sabah province, and that, says Fernandez, has made the government less willing to pay for universal education.

AEGILE FERNANDEZ: This whole question that arose from locals that, if you provide the education for migrant children, then the local children lose out.

STEVE SAPIENZA: At a plantation owned by PPB Oil Palms, a special school run by a local nonprofit called Humana, has been trying to address the migrants’ education needs. Humana was founded over two decades ago by Danish-native Torben Venning.

TORBEN VENNING, Humana: We saw children going around in the plantations without any education. So, in 1990, the first three school projects were started with 70 children. Due to the demand for education, it has grown to 128 learning centers now with more than 12,000 children.

Through our projects, I believe — I believe that they have had a big effect in actually getting an awareness that the children existed, and also that they should go to school.

STEVE SAPIENZA: The palm oil company paid for the construction of this schoolhouse, the books, and the uniforms. Humana provides the teachers and study plans.

PPB group manager Frederick Chok says the schools help the company attract and retain skilled labor.

FREDERICK CHOK, PPB Group Manager: The reason why they are here then because a lot of them, they want to put their children into the Humana school.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Today, an estimated 12,000 migrant youth have access to basic education offered at the nonprofit learning centers. But for tens of thousands of kids who work on other plantations, school remains out of reach and officials show no indication that reality will change.

NASRUN DATUK MANSUR: The government — government seems to — seems to agree with the fact that children of these workers need education too, but they are not qualified to enter the local schools because they don’t have the proper papers.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Meanwhile, Fatma Tabbo still holds on to hope she can return to school and dreams that her siblings will get an education.

FATMA TABBO: I want my brother and sister to go to school, so they will be able to read and count.

STEVE SAPIENZA: But, for now, the Tabbo kids and thousands of other migrant children will continue to toil in the shadows of the palm oil trees.

JEFFREY BROWN: Steve Sapienza has reported other stories about the social and environmental costs of producing goods many of us take for granted. You will find a link on our Web site to the Pulitzer Center’s page on global goods, local costs.