'Enslaved' children denied civil rights in Malaysia
By Erwida Maulia The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Thu, 09/18/2008 10:36AM
It is 11 a.m. and three Indonesian children -- two boys and a girl -- are busily picking up palm oil seeds that have been dropped by their parents during harvest on a plantation in Sabah, Malaysia.
The children on the video were employed with ensuring that no seeds went to waste. One of the two boys, 10-year-old Ramdan, later said he could collect up to six sacks of palm oil seeds in a day, with each sack containing around 50 kilograms.
Each sack is worth 1.3 MYR (38 US cents), he added.
The film continues. Ramdan, dressed in a yellow T-shirt and a pair of blue jeans, squats, his head bent to the ground. Next to him is his bucket, in which he places the seeds.
Nearby, and similarly occupied, are a girl and another boy of a similar age to Ramdan.
That was the footage captured by Sahrizal, an Indonesian teacher recently assigned to Sabah to teach children of Indonesian migrant workers. The children in the video were among his pupils.
Sahrizal was among some 100 people grouped in the Forum of Non-Permanent Teachers in Sabah (FGTTS) who recently reported alleged child exploitation in the Malaysian plantation hub to the National Commission on Child Protection.
FGTTS member Khoerul Wajid said most children had to work all day to collect an average of two or three sacks of seeds and that it was their parents who forced them to do so at the bidding of their employers.
Commission secretary general Arist Merdeka Sirait said in a press conference here Wednesday that a fact-finding team his office had sent to Sabah for three days had beheld a scene of "modern slavery", which was affecting tens of thousands of Indonesian migrant workers and their children.
He said the employers made systematic efforts to keep the workers and their children enslaved.
He said local plantation firms sought to continue to "irresponsibly" employ the migrant workers and to offer them no choice but to live in poor-conditions; cooped up in isolated barracks that were cut off from all means of transportation.
Arist said the efforts included employing a system where the workers were forced to work to pay off bogus debts. The commission referred to the mechanism as "bonded labor".
"They work today to pay off debts from previous days. For example, they try to obtain permission to work there, but that's all they work for. But this debt will never be paid off, and it happens to both legal and illegal migrant workers," he said.
Data from the Indonesian consulate general in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, shows there are 200,000 legal and 134,000 illegal Indonesian migrants working on at least 103 plantations. The number of children is estimated at 72,000, all of whom have not been registered by their parents' employers so that their civil rights, including to education, are denied.
An official at the Malaysian Embassy in Indonesia, who asked not to be named, said the Malaysian authorities and Indonesia's Consulate General in Kota Kinabalu were investigating the case.
The National Commission on Child Protection is urging the Indonesian government to use inter-ministerial diplomatic channels to end the reported slavery and to provide more jobs at home.