In the shadow of the palm: CSR in Malaysia

I recently visited Malaysia to discuss corporate social responsibility (CSR) with leading companies. As my flight came into land and the captain dipped the Airbus below the clouds to line up for the final approach, the green Malaysian countryside came into view. For miles in every direction I could see palm oil plantations; there were scarcely any other types of tree.

According to the Malaysia palm oil council, 15 per cent of Malaysia’s total land surface is covered by palm oil trees. The country is now the largest exporter of palm oil, accounting for 39 per cent of the world’s total production. Half a million people are employed on the plantations and a further million derive their income from the industry. There are huge corporate plantations and small holder farms, plus a huge number of migrant workers who toil away to make the whole process work.

The industry is widely criticized for its negative impacts on the environment, from the burning of vegetation after the harvest to the destruction of wildlife habitats. But I want to talk about the sometimes hidden impacts that this industry has on children’s rights to access basic services, and some encouraging steps being taken in the country to address this complex set of problems.

Asmara’s story

So I’d like you to meet Asmara, age 8, who lives with her mother and two younger siblings in Sabah on a small palm oil farm which sells its fruit to a larger corporate plantation nearby.

Asmara’s family is Indonesian, but she and her brother and sister do not have birth certificates, so they are not allowed to attend school or access health care in the closest village.

Instead, they follow their mother into the rows of palm oil trees every day pruning, cutting and picking up “loose fruit” at harvest time. Asmara’s mother is concerned that her children are not getting an education and that they will end up with no opportunities for a better life when they grow up, but at the moment she doesn’t really have much choice.

Now Asmara is a fictional example because Sabah is not in my itinerary this time. But I bet I would not have to search for long to find a match to my scenario. There are thousands of undocumented children like Asmara who live in the shadows of the palms. As non-Malaysians, they fall outside the government support systems and do not benefit from the services that some (but not all) corporate plantations provide their workers and dependents. They are simply excluded.


Children of migrant workers study at an orange orchard in Fang, Thailand
© UNICEF Thailand/2011/Andy Brown


Speeding into Kuala Lumpur on the airport link train, my colleague Beth Verhey and I look out at the rows of trees whizzing by us on both sides. Rather than a visit to Sabah, we are actually in KL to meet with Government and industry representatives and, together with colleagues from the UNICEF Malaysia office, to introduce them to the Children’s Rights and Business Principles (CRBP), a new approach to CSR developed by UNICEF and partners.

Our first stop was the Malaysian Companies Commission, or SSM, the official registrar of businesses in Malaysia – and enforcer of the Companies Bill governing corporate activity. UNICEF Malaysia crafted a partnership with the Companies Commission to promote child friendly business practices as part of overall CSR development.

So far, UNICEF Malaysia and the Companies Commission have developed best practice examples and guidelines for various issues such as breastfeeding in the workplace, setting up child care centres, and CSR reporting on children’s rights. Beth and I were there to introduce the CRBP to a group of registered companies of all sizes and in a variety of industries. We also planned to train a smaller group of those companies to become trainers themselves, so that they could carry the CRBP message forward to other Malaysian companies once we headed back to Bangkok.

“So why are we here today talking to you about Children’s Rights?” Beth asked the group of 40 in her opening remarks. A man immediately raised his hand. “I don’t know, I don’t have child labour on my plantation, so I’m not sure why I am here.”

Well was he in for it! Others in the room quickly chimed in “What about small holder farms?” … “What about migrant children, they aren’t even counted!” … “What about children of your employees who follow their parents on the plantation?”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

The point of the CRBP is that UNICEF wants to get business to examine their impact on children’s rights beyond just child labour, which is what we did for the rest of the day. Needless to say, by the end, we had a convert in the plantation manager. He realized that he still had work to do to truly support children’s rights.

Sime Darby

Our next stop was at Sime Darby, a large Malaysian company employing around 100,000 people worldwide to work in plantations, auto dealerships, utilities, construction, and ports. As one of the largest palm oil companies, they have been frequently embroiled in the various CSR debates around this industry.

A few years ago, Sime Darby approached UNICEF to help them assess and address child rights impacts in their business. They showed their commitment to this by creating a Child Protection policy endorsed by the board of directors.

For our meeting, they assembled 60 of their middle and upper managers from each of their divisions for a workshop on child rights, held in their state-of-the-art training centre outside Kuala Lumpur. Beth asked the same question: “So why are we here today talking to you about Children’s Rights?”
Throughout the day, person by person, division by division, possible direct and indirect impacts on children’s rights were identified on post-it notes and white boards, and the enthusiasm in the room seemed to grow and grow.

The workshop went over by more than an hour, yet the group pushed on, identifying the areas warranting further examination. I detected an intense satisfaction, even company pride, that they had widened their gaze on children’s rights through the day, and that this could help them demonstrate their industry leadership even further.

Awaiting our flight back to Bangkok, we felt like we had helped UNICEF Malaysia set something in motion that was very special, and that would ultimately benefit all the children in Malaysia. That is the power of the Children’s Rights and Business Principles.

The author
Michael Copping is Corporate Engagement Specialist at UNICEF East Asia and Pacific

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  1. Nicely written! And the experience, lively narrated. Will share this with the participants, if you don't mind. Thanks for coming last year. It was great pleasure having you and Beth.

    1. I would be thrilled if this was shared with the participants. It was a very inspiring experience for me personally and I look forward to continuing to participate in the dialog in Malaysia.