Living in cramped barracks with no access to education, these are the children earning $6 a day at one of Indonesia’s most profitable paper companies.

The sun was still about half an hour from rising when the sound of dangdut music broke the morning silence in the eucalyptus plantation barracks. The workers woke up from their sleep, rushing to get ready. At around 7 a.m, the laborers were ready and standing in a row in front of the wooden shacks, two trucks on standby to take them to the plantation in North Sumatra.

Their work for one of Indonesia’s largest pulp and paper companies—Toba Pulp Lestari—includes planting seeds, spreading fertilizer and spraying weed poison. Most are adult women and men, some already have families. However, there were also children who went to work that day. 

At just 14 years old, Sita is still a minor and not legally allowed to work under Indonesian law. Regardless, she was still hired to work for the company. A small, soft-spoken girl no taller than 5ft, wearing rubber boots and a sarong to protect her from the sun, she has been working on the plantation for a year. 

“But we often hide while working,” she told VICE World News, requesting a pseudonym for fear of losing her job. “When guests from outside the company visit the plantation, the supervisor will tell us to hide behind the trees.”

She said that her village is very remote, making it “very difficult to find work.” That fact brought her to Toba Pulp Lestari, a multimillion dollar pulp and paper firm operating a land concession of almost 168,000 hectares. Boasting net sales of Rp 1.8 trillion ($126 million) in 2020, mostly through exports to China, Toba Pulp’s controversial billionaire owner Sukanto Tanoto was once described by Greenpeace as holding the “dubious distinction of being the single largest driver of deforestation in the world” through his business empire. 

But while Sukanto’s company has been linked with illegal deforestation, land grabbing from indigenous groups and polluting the surrounding area, less well documented is the role child labour plays in generating the firm’s multimillion-dollar profits. 

In February, VICE World News stayed for two days near one of the workers’ barracks on Toba Pulp Lestari’s plantation, taking a closer look at their daily activities and living conditions. Despite being closely watched by a foreman, reporters spoke with five underage workers on the plantations living in inadequate conditions, working hazardous jobs with no health insurance, and with no access to education.

It’s in these conditions that Sita has been working for Toba Pulp ever since she quit school at the beginning of 2021 and was offered a job at the plantation by her aunt, who also lives and works there. Her parents agreed and she left her village on the island of Nias off the coast of Sumatra, travelling for 12 hours by boat to Sibolga and then by bus for five hours to Toba Regency.

Since then, she has become one of the more than eight thousand daily casual workers working on the company’s eucalyptus plantation. Based on its 2020 annual report, the company employs 1,195 staff directly and indirectly hires 7,000 laborers who are recruited by 267 local subcontractors that partner with the company.

Every day, Sita starts her work activities at 6 a.m and finishes at 4 p.m—that is, unless the weather is bad or she is too sick to work. 

“If it rains we don’t work and we don’t get paid,” she said. “If we are sick, we can’t work, and we pay for the medical expenses ourselves.” Like most other workers, she does not have health insurance.

Sita receives a daily wage of $6. In the best case scenario she can work 25 days a month and receive $150—below North Sumatra’s minimum wage of around $175, and just shy of Indonesia’s national poverty line of $151.06—the minimum income needed for day-to-day necessities. But in reality, owing to the weather, especially during Indonesia’s wet season from October to February, she works on average 20 days a month.

Sita lives in barracks provided by the company consisting of 30 stark 4×5-meter rooms, each one occupied by 4–6 people, often whole families, and serviced by low-voltage electricity only strong enough to power a lamp. The barracks have no bedrooms and at night the occupants of each compartment sleep in rows. There is only one bathroomfor about 40 families—they take turns using it, Sita says. 

“That’s how we are here,” she said. ”We’re used to it.”  

This story was first published by VICE World News on 4 May 2022. Read the full story here.

About the writer

Tonggo Simangunsong

Tonggo Simangunsong is a journalist based in Medan city, North Sumatra. His work has appeared in VICE, the South China Morning Post, Al Jazeera, New Naratif and DestinAsian, covering environmental issues,...

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