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The need for child labour data in Malaysia

Accurate data on child labour will help us to solve the problem efficiently. Photo by Atul Pandey - Unsplash

By: Dr. Romi Bhakti Hartarto

The issue of child labour in Malaysia has long been overlooked. The latest available data on child labour in Malaysia dates back 30 years to the National Census conducted by the Malaysian Statistics Department in 1991. Since then, there have been no further updates on child labour, making it challenging to determine the exact number and distribution of child labourers. However, the absence of recent data does not mean that child labour no longer exists in Malaysia. In fact, UNICEF’s global estimates in 2020 indicated that there were approximately 24 million children forced to work in East Asia and Southeast Asia, and it is possible that Malaysia contributes to this figure.

Dr. Romi Bhakti Hartarto

The Malaysian government has ratified the International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions concerning child labour, namely No. 138 on the minimum age for work (15 years) and No. 182 on the worst forms of child labour. Moreover, children aged 15 to 17 are protected from hazardous work. According to the Child and Youth Act of 1966, violations of these provisions can result in fines of up to RM 5,000 and/or a maximum of one year in prison. However, in fact, children, especially those from indigenous, minority, and marginalized communities such as asylum seekers, refugees, immigrants, and undocumented children in East Malaysia, still face these challenges. They have limited access to formal education as public schools do not admit non-Malaysian children without special dispensation from the Ministry of Education. Even if they are allowed to attend state schools, they must pay fees as it is not entirely free.

As reported by CTV News, most child labourers work in palm oil plantations, with around 33,000 children involved. Ironically, Jodelen Mitra from the ILO revealed that at least two-thirds of these children are Malaysians.  This revelation led to the condemnation of a French multinational company for using palm oil sourced from Malaysia in some of its products, drawing international media attention. Reports from the Swiss NGO, Solidar, estimated even higher numbers, suggesting that about 50,000 to 200,000 children live with their parents on palm oil plantations, helping them with harvesting and other tasks.

The issue of child labour in palm oil plantations is just the tip of the iceberg. Child labour in Malaysia is not only limited to children working in fields and handling palm oil harvests. Some children wander the streets, selling tissues or begging for a penny. Furthermore, UNESCO data indicates that about 12% of children of middle school age and 37% of high school-age children in Malaysia are no longer attending school and are at risk of becoming child labourers. A study in 2016 in four Malaysian states revealed that over 50% of these working children labour for 10 to 12 hours, exceeding the allowed six hours per day, all for meagre earnings. Moreover, their study showed that child labourers experience physical and emotional abuse, job dissatisfaction, and regret for missing out on education.

The lack of accurate data on the number of child labourers in Malaysia has hindered empirical studies. In neighbouring countries like Indonesia, annual surveys on child labour are conducted, and there has been a decreasing trend in child labour over the past three years, despite a temporary increase during the COVID-19 pandemic. Indonesia also has a longitudinal database called the Indonesia Family Life Survey, which provides valuable academic research material to analyse child labour phenomena. Malaysia once had a similar database, the Malaysia Family Life Survey, but unfortunately, it ended in 1989. Without robust data, eradicating child labour in Malaysia remains a challenging task. Therefore, accurate data on child labour is essential for the Malaysian government to take the initial steps to address this issue and achieve Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals, which aims to eradicate forced labour and child labour.


The author is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Economics, Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta. He is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Ungku Aziz Centre for Development Studies, Universiti Malaya.

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