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Palm Oil Company Takes First Steps Towards Implementing Child Rights

Last week I visited a palm oil plantation in North Sumatra, together with my ICCO colleague, our partner PKPA and labor union CNV and its local partner Hukatan.

Palm Oil Company Takes First Steps Towards Implementing Child Rights

On the map the palm oil plantation seemed to be close to the huge city of Medan, in practice it took us many hours to reach the village inside the plantation, because of the traffic jams and bad roads.

Child Rights at palm oil plantations

Reason for this visit was to discuss the first results of a responsible business project. ICCO and CNV, members of the Civic Engagement Alliance promote the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights (UNGP’s). These principles – adopted in 2011 by the international community- states a clear responsibility to private sector to respect human rights. On paper, a clear statement, but what does it mean and how to start in practice? Companies, even large ones like the PT Sinar Mas Group, a large company active in palm oil and paper&pulp, ask us often how to do this.

Therefore, ICCO together with its local partner PKPA selected ten villages at palm oil plantations to start with implementing the Child Right Business Principles (CRBP) based on the UNGPs. ICCO and PKPA translated these into a Child Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility (CCSR) guide. PKPA engages with palm oil companies, such as PT LNK, PT UKINDO, PTPN II (state owned) of which some are suppliers to Sinar Mas, and local communities to discuss the daily difficulties in the villages. E.g. the use of child labor by the parents, low income, lack of children’s facilities and so on, aiming to eliminate the worst form of child labor and to create child friendly villages.

Changing times

Next day, I attended a stakeholders’ forum in Medan organized by Sinar Mas. Sinar Mas invited some of its 400 suppliers as well as NGOs to discuss sustainability with a special focus on child labor issues. Many participants underlined the negative label NGOs (used to) have, fighting all the times with companies and criticizing their business operations. However, times seemed to have changed. Sinar Mas, still facing many human rights issues in the field, was present with twelve officials from its headquarters feeling the urgency on the topic. It appeared to be very open for critical remarks and willing to cooperate with NGOs to make progress on social issues. ICCO and PKPA gave presentations and elaborated on the need to implement the UNGPs and more specific the Child Rights Business Principles at plantations. Sinar Mas expressed its commitment on this topic and wants to scale up this initiative to more plantations in Sumatra.

stakeholders forum in Medan organized by Sinar Mas.

Synergizing with NGOs

A high official within Sinar Mas, a former NGO activist, emphasized the importance of cooperation and synergizing with NGOs. “The problems on the ground tell us the need to cooperate with others. Conflicts with local communities are not benefitting the company. And we see the solution in promoting social business by involving local communities.” Of course, ICCO will check and see if the situation of families at plantations, including respecting child rights, will really improve with these commitments of Sinar Mas. However, we see this as a promising start and we will continue to work with companies who are open to positive change.

Author Femmy Bakker
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