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Helping children of Malaysia’s plantation workers get a quality education

By Steve Nettleton

LAHAD DATU, Malaysia, 12 March 2012 – Under the vast oil palm canopy of the Hap Seng plantation, on the eastern edge of Malaysian Borneo, Maria Rafael hacks away dead branches with her machete while supervising the progress of several other female migrant workers.

UNICEF correspondent Steve Nettleton reports on UNICEF-supported efforts to ensure that the children of Malaysian plantation workers get a quality education. Photo © UNICEF Malaysia/2011/Nadchatram


Ms. Rafael left her hometown in Indonesia nearly 30 years ago to seek a better living on the plantations in Malaysia’s Sabah state. While the work has been tough, Rafael says her biggest concern today is the future of her 14-year-old daughter, Augustina Felicity, who has no birth certificate. Without documentation, her daughter is not eligible to attend regular Malaysian schools.

“We were very concerned about this because we knew that to enroll in school you needed a birth registration,” said Ms. Rafael. “We were very worried. We could not go back to Indonesia because we did not have enough money. We were resigned and left it to fate.”

Fate has given her a chance. Her daughter now attends a special school built on the plantation with the support of the plantation’s management and the Borneo Child Aid Society. But many others are not so fortunate.

Futureless without education

There are many children like Augustina Felicity, living on the plantations in Sabah, most with little or no access to education.

© UNICEF Malaysia/2011/Nadchatram
Children of plantation workers attend class at the Hap Seng Plantation River Estates in Tomanggong, Lahad Datu, Malaysia.

With no classes to attend, many of these children start helping their parents on the plantation – in effect becoming child labourers without even the rudimentary educations their parents had.

“They see their children growing up with possibly even less education than they came with from Indonesia, and that would be a tragic thing for any parent to see – their children growing up without even the few years of schooling that they have had themselves,” said Borneo Child Aid Society Director Torben Venning.

Mr. Venning’s organization is working with plantation owners across Sabah to set up some 100 schools, providing a basic education to about 9,000 children. In addition to the Malaysian school curriculum, the schools also teach the Indonesian syllabus so that students can later enroll in secondary or higher education in their home country.

UNICEF is supporting the Borneo Child Aid Society and is establishing a collaboration with the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil in Malaysia to convince other enterprises across the region of the advantages – both from a business and humanitarian perspective – of doing the same.

This work reflects UNICEF’s approach to engaging businesses in the promotion of child-focused corporate social responsibility (CSR). UNICEF is helping businesses integrate child-rights perspectives into their practices, and has just released ‘Children’s Rights and Business Principles’, the first comprehensive set of principles to guide companies on how to respect and support children’s rights.

A basic human right

“It’s very important for businesses to understand while they are providing employment to the families… that they also have a responsibility to the families and the children who are born of those parents,” said UNICEF Deputy Representative in Malaysia Victor Karunan.

© UNICEF Malaysia/2011/Nadchatram
Augustina Felicity,14, attends class at the Hap Seng Plantation River Estates in Tomanggong, Lahad Datu, Malaysia. Her mother is a foreman at the plantation.

That message is gaining ground among a number of managers who are starting to see the benefits of offering schooling to their workers’ children.

“To provide education to the children is very important. This is a basic human right,” said Daniel Lo, the general manager of the Hap Seng Plantation River Estates in Tomanggong. “And it’s also to stabilize the work force. I hope that other plantation companies will follow the same, to provide a basic education to their children.”

For Ms. Rafael, the plantation’s school has given her daughter a critical opportunity.

“My hope is for my daughter to continue her schooling. As long as I can work and afford it, I will do what I can to realize this,” Rafael said. “We want to continue working here and hope the company will help provide schools for our children. Please help us with this and help our children study to the best of their ability.”



Global Initiative on Out-of-School Children

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