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Church faces dilemma advocating for child workers

Indonesian priest fears speaking out on their behalf will result in backlash against them, especially from palm oil firms

Church faces dilemma advocating for child workers

A girl pushes a cart while working at a palm oil plantation area in Pelalawan, Riau province in Indonesia's Sumatra Island, in this Sept 16, 2015 file photo. (Photo by Adek Berry/AFP)

 

Konradus Epa, Jakarta
Indonesia

March 15, 2017

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The Indonesian church is struggling to help child workers forced to work for palm oil companies for fear they and their families will be kicked off the plantations and lose their source of income, a priest said.

Based on interviews with workers, Amnesty International reported that many employees worked long hours for low pay and without adequate safety equipment.

Following the investigation conducted last November, the rights group said children as young as eight worked in "hazardous" conditions on palm plantations run by the world's largest palm oil producer Wilmar International.

Divine Word Father Frans Sani Lake said the Singapore-based firm and others in Indonesia are highly sensitive toward criticism, especially if it is based on what employees are supposed to have said.  

As such "we face difficulty trying to advocate for child workers and their families," the director of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation in Kalimantan, said.

Father Lake said if his organization advocated for them, the children and their parents would be kicked out of the companies and the church would be banned from offering pastoral services there.

The only thing we can do is "give sacramental services and offer homilies," the priest said.

He said palm oil companies in Kalimantan using child labor include Wilmar Internasional, PT Bumitama Gunajaya Agro (BGA) Group, and PT Nabatindo Karya Utama.

Father Lake said children are forced to work for little pay because their parents want to meet targets set by the companies.

Arist Merdeka Sirait, former director of the National Commission on Child Protection, said many children are working on plantations and that their right to an education are often ignored since most do not attend school.   

He said number of child workers in Indonesia increases every year and they often exposed to dangerous conditions. 

According to Sirait, more than 10,000 children work on palm oil plantations across Indonesia. 

They and their families "live in fear of reprisal for speaking out about their poor working conditions," he said.

Amnesty said in a recent statement that Wilmar International forced its workers to sign a document stating that the result of the rights groups investigation were untrue during a meeting with trade union representatives.

Wilmar International denied accusations by Amnesty International that the move was designed to intimidate workers into covering up labor abuses.

Indonesia's Manpower and Transmigration Ministry said it is trying to reduce child labor and would improve worker protection on palm plantations. 

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