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February 13, 2013

Schooling Suffers on Palm Oil Plantations

Watch Palm Oil Demand Drives Employment of Child Migrant Workers on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

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The rising global demand for palm oil has made it Malaysia’s most profitable crop, bringing in $25 billion dollars a year and driving the spread of palm oil plantations into the wilderness. However, that growth has come at a steep cost to the migrant workers harvesting the crop, many of them children.

Palm oil is now an ingredient in more than half of all the products sold in U.S. supermarkets, from cookies to cosmetics. However, the process to harvest the oil is labor intensive, and has seen little innovation since the 1960s.

The migrant workers who come to work on the palm plantations are often undocumented.

“They have no papers. They cannot work legally. So, in a way, they are invisible,” said Alison Neri of Good Shepherd, a social welfare charity in Sabah, Malaysia.

This invisibility means that the estimated 50,000 migrant children who come with these workers do not have access to an education, and are therefore likely to stay at home with their parents to help with work.

Nonprofit groups are stepping in to address the migrants’ education needs, including Humana, which provides teachers and study plans for special schools built for plantation workers’ children.

However, while an estimated 12,000 migrant youth have access to basic education offered through these nonprofit learning centers, thousands of others will have to continue to wait for their chance at an education.


“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,” – Aegile Fernandez, Tenaganita.

Warm Up Questions

1. What do you know about palm oil?

2. What is a migrant worker?

3. What special challenges do the children of immigrants and migrant workers face?

Discussion Questions

1. Why do you think these nonprofits are working so hard to educate kids of migrant workers?

2. Do you think there are any similarities between U.S. and Malaysian immigration issues? If so, explain.

3. Do you think the government should take more of a role in helping to solve this problem? Why or why not?

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