MP SPEAKS Malaysia is now the world’s sixth largest producer of natural rubber after Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and India. We remain the leading supplier for latex medical gloves (examination and surgical gloves) - fulfilling more than fifty percent of global demand.
We are a country that exports rubber worth RM15 billion a year. But the lowest end of the rubber food chain, ordinary Malaysian rubber tappers, continue to suffer. They barely survive in an environment deeply dependent on fluctuations of global rubber prices.
Malay Mail Online reported that rubber tappers in Kaki Bukit are struggling to make ends meet with the drop in rubber prices to RM1.60 per kilo of rubber cup lump (in the peninsula) and RM1.30 (East Malaysia). This downward trend is compounded by the malnutrition rife among the people of Baling and other rubber tapping communities.
Currently, there is an existing government scheme, the Insentif Pengeluaran Getah (IPG) to ensure that the earnings of rubber smallholders do not fall below the poverty line.
However, it only kicks in when rubber prices per cup lumps are below RM2.20, which was around RM1.75 to RM 1.80.
Furthermore, the waiting period for this scheme has been reported to exceed 30 days for each application, with another 14 days waiting period for money to be transferred into the account.
This scheme only ensures that rubber smallholders’ incomes will be above the poverty line which is very low at RM763 in the peninsula.
Already, Thailand has moved to help its rubber growers by buying their produce at a higher than global market price. Measures by the Thai government to assist rubber smallholders are worth THB13 billion (RM3.64 billion) or THB1,500 per rai (1,600 sq metres) - higher than the requested 1,250 baht per rai by Thai rubber farmers. The Thai subsidy far surpasses the RM100 million allocated in Malaysia’s 2015 budget for the Insentif Pengeluaran Getah (IPG).
As such, I move to suggest a more permanent long term solution, that the government immediately take action to ensure that there is a provision of a guaranteed minimum monthly income for rubber tappers at RM1,200 per month.
This will help to provide smallholders with a guaranteed minimum level of income when rubber production fails to generate satisfactory earnings. Thus, if on account of rain, weathering of trees or poor yields - all factors outside labour’s control and monthly earnings threaten to fall below RM1,200, the workers are assured of the stipulated minimum threshold income.
Proposal is not new
The proposal for a guaranteed monthly income for rubber tappers is not new. Back in 2003, The National Union of Plantation Workers (NUPW) argued for a guaranteed monthly income. We must begin the process of sourcing a holistic safety-net income solution for the lowest common denominator of the rubber industry.
Natural rubber is of strategic importance to the country given the country’s exports of rubber products. Yet, the current state of our rubber tappers is beyond belief - some remain malnourished and continue to be mired in poverty. This has to stop, and it begins with a shift from the current fixation on the interests of profiteers, rentiers and mega projects, such as the recently announced Kedah ‘Rubber City’, to ordinary Malaysian rubber smallholders and tappers.
The Rubber Industry Smallholder Development Authority has to do more to ensure that the longstanding problems of smallholders do not continue to be another stain on the country’s development.
NURUL IZZAH ANWAR is Member of Parliament, Lembah Pantai, and vice-president and election director of PKR.