Palm Oil for the West, Exploitation for Young Workers in Malaysia

As demand for the substance grows, thousands of child workers toil in the palm fruit trade.
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Jason Motlagh

Squinting under the bill of his baseball cap, Leonary Marcus scans the treetops for ripe clusters of palm fruit to hack down with the aluminum scythe hanging from his shoulder. When a flame-red bunch catches his eye, he hooks the tool at the crux of the branch and yanks downward with all the muscle a 17-year-old can muster. The canopy shakes, a squawking bird flees and the fruit crashes to the ground in scattered heaps for him to gather into a rusty wheelbarrow. Leonary wipes the sweat from his face and moves on to the next row of trees, as he has done almost every day for the past five years.

The boy was invisible from the skies I flew in over the day before, wandering alone somewhere under cover of the plantations that blanket Malaysian Borneo. The monoculture is carved by muddy rivers where crocodiles lurk and laterite roads that lead to processing plants with belching steel smoke stacks. Patches of clear-cut earth indicate where some farms are being expanded to keep the boilers full and the profits flowing into the coffers of the multinational agro-businesses that own them.

Today, more than half of all products sold in U.S. supermarkets, from cosmetics to candy bars, contain palm oil.

On the ground, in the void between the giant trees, Leonary stands out. He plods along, despite the heat and unexpected arrival of an outsider with questions about where he's from, why he's not in school. After moving from Indonesia as a boy with his migrant worker parents, he attended a learning center run by a local non-profit organization. But because he did not have any legal documents, he was barred from secondary school, leaving him with no choice but to work the same farm as his parents for about $7.50 a day. "There is no other option for me," he says.


To the Malaysian government, Leonary Marcus officially does not exist.

He is one of an estimated 50,000 stateless Indonesian children living in Sabah province, the country's palm oil producing heartland. Thousands more have come from the Phillipines, born to workers that have arrived in waves since the 1970's to fulfill a demand for cheap labor in what is now the world's second-largest palm oil industry. Without papers that prove nationality, their children are likewise denied healthcare and education, while the rest of the region continues to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Over the past two months, life has grown even harder for migrant workers in Sabah. When followers of the mysterious Sultan of Sulu traveled to the region in early February to re-establish a land claim, a weeks-long standoff turned bloody, leaving more than 70 people dead and scores displaced. Malaysian forces are accused of rights abuses against the migrant community in the backcountry as they try to flush out remaining gunmen, while scores of Filipinos have fled the violence by boat.

In 2011, the export of palm oil and palm-based products earned Malaysia $27 billion -- a five-fold increase over the past decade -- thanks to brisk trade with China, the European Union, India and the United States, which is now importing record levels for its low price and long shelf life. Today, more than half of all products sold in U.S. supermarkets, from cosmetics to candy bars, contain palm oil. And with new government-mandated labeling requirements in the United States and Europe aimed at phasing out unhealthy trans-fats found in other types of oil, demand is increasing.

That's more good news for Sabah, which accounts for one-third of Malaysia's palm oil output. Twenty-five years ago, Lahad Datu, the main town in eastern Sabah, was a forgotten backwater of clapboard buildings. Drunkards roamed cracked sidewalks by day and nightfall was a signal to stay indoors. Locals recall how their hapless police force was nowhere to be seen when a gang of pirates shot their way into the town's only bank, walking out with sacks of cash over a trail of dead bodies.

Such visions are hard to square with the robust development sweeping the area: Over the past 15 years the city's population has doubled; downtown real estate prices have quadrupled; gleaming business-class hotels and fast-food franchises line newly paved roads that are monitored by squad cars. In the middle of a busy traffic roundabout in the center of town, a gilded palm tree stands as a symbol for the government-led campaign to upgrade a region that has lagged far behind Malaysia's industry-rich Western peninsula.

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Jason Motlagh

"Life here used to be much different; it was a rough kind of place," says Tammay Bin Inton, 58, a community leader for whom the days of violent street crime and power outages are a not-so-distant memory. He sat with a group of friends at a popular Indian teashop, talking football over cups of milk tea and samosas. With some pride, he noted that both of his children had recently moved back from Kota Kinabalu, eastern Malaysia's largest city, to start projects of their own and take advantage of the boom. "The quality of life here has improved tremendously," he says. "Business is good."

South of town, lines of tanker trucks deliver crude palm oil around the clock to a sprawling, state-owned refinery complex where fresh lots have been set aside for potential investors. Provincial officials hope that a deep-water port currently under construction nearby will position the region to be a top exporter of biodiesel, if and when overseas demand surges. With government plans to double the overall area under cultivation by 2020, the prospects of Lahad Datu's inhabitants are poised to get brighter.

But when the subject changes to the migrant laborers who keep the tankers revving around the clock, the mood at the cafe table sours. Mention of the vital role legions of Indonesians and Filipinos play by filling menial plantation jobs that most Malaysians would never consider causes the men to grumble vaguely about an increase in troubling behavior ("...the migrants are causing public disturbances"); the erosion of local culture and traditions; and the threat migrants posed to local employment prospects ("...what about the locals?").

"The foreigners must be controlled. They are stealing jobs... Those that don't have documents should be kicked out of Malaysia," says Arnan Angkut, 50, a contractor. As for those who have toiled for decades to the benefit of the local economy, whose children are rejected by state schools and hospitals? "That's up to the bosses (of the plantations). They can take care of their workers as they see fit. We don't want to pay for anything."

It was several days later that I came across an interesting item in the Business Times newspaper: Malaysia is losing at least 3 billion Ringgit ($986 million) in potential exports and tax revenue due to unpicked palm fruit resulting from its labor shortage. To avoid huge losses and hit target output goals, the Malaysian Palm Oil Board estimated that 40,000 additional workers needed to be hired, and fast. The article pointed out that many oil palm planters are mechanizing agricultural practices wherever possible and offering better wages in the estates across the region.

"Despite this," the article continued, "many locals continue to shun plantation jobs." Officials lamented the loss of potential tax revenues and vowed to get approval for extra foreign workers. No mention was made of incentives that might be offered to retain existing Indonesian and Filipino workers, some of whom are starting to leave the country for rival Indonesia as palm plantations expand into virgin tracts of forest.

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Jason Motlagh is a writer, photographer and filmmaker who previously served as TIME Magazine's Kabul correspondent. 

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