One of the major improvements in the updated Principles and Criteria (P&C) of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) concerns the protection of children – one of the most vulnerable groups in the industry. Specifically, the new P&C make it mandatory for RSPO members to have a formal policy on the protection of children, a documented process and a requirement for evidence of age screening and training for company staff on child protection in plantations and smallholder plots.

Why children?

RSPO considers the safety of children and the protection of their rights on plantations to be a priority. A core aspect of child rights is ensuring they are provided with a safe and conducive environment, which allows them to grow and unlock their full potential. Because of the vulnerability of children, RSPO has always maintained a strict ban on all forms of child labour, in line with international laws1.

What is child labour?

Child labour is work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to their physical and mental development. This term is applicable to all children under the age of 18.

But this does not necessarily mean that any person under the age of 18 is prohibited from working. A young person may be employed or engaged in non-hazardous work, assuming that protective restrictions are in place.

A more nuanced understanding of the reality on the ground

It is essential to strike a balance between the need to protect children and reduce poverty through creating sustainable livelihoods. This is especially important when it comes to families operating smallholder farms.

While they are working on farms, families are known to keep their children with them. One reason is to keep overheads low, but cultural and practical factors also come into play – it is safer to keep the child with their parents while they are working, instead of leaving them alone and hence at risk. This is why when trying to find evidence of child labour, it is important to ask:

  • Is the work which the child is engaged in mentally or physically dangerous, or harmful to the child?
  • Does it interfere and/or deprive him or her from the opportunity to attend school?

RSPO Secretariat and the organisation’s members have been working hard to address many of these issues and propose practical solutions – not only through RSPO’s most recent Principles and Criteria (P&C) review process but also through studies such as the Children Rights and Business Principles Palm Oil Programme for oil palm plantations in Indonesia, in partnership with the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). The pilot made it clear that having policies in place can help companies better detect gaps and prevent the occurrence of child labour from taking place.

Children’s rights and independent smallholders

While there are specific criteria in place to ensure that certified plantation units are child-free, the standards for independent smallholders are currently being developed to cater for their specific needs.

From principles to action

RSPO Secretariat will be developing the guidelines and best management practices to eliminate child labour in oil palm plantations. Part of those efforts involve developing toolkits for the protection of children’s rights for its members.

To this end, we will keep members and stakeholders updated on the status and progress of initiatives relating to children rights – a shared responsibility that rests on the shoulders of all actors across the supply chain.

1 Convention on the Rights of the Child; ILO Minimum Age Convention 1973 (No. 138); Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention 1999 (No. 182).

2 Young workers are aged 15, or above the minimum age of employment, but under the age of 18.


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