COMMENT | The majority of workers (about 85 percent) in oil palm plantations in Malaysia are migrant workers from neighbouring countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Cambodia and India. In some plantations, there are also workers from the refugee Rohingya communities.
Migrant workers carry out typical plantation work such as harvesting of ripe fruits; pruning of oil palms, applying fertiliser to the palms, transporting the fruit bunches to the mills and spraying herbicides. It is very palpable that the industry is heavily dependent on migrant workers without whom essential work such as harvesting, collection and evacuation of fresh fruits would quickly grind to a halt.
This article is from a preliminary report which is a composite of observations from a number of different plantations in Perak, Selangor and Johor where conditions may vary. The purpose of this report is to highlight some areas where plantation companies could make improvements in their continuing quest to make work on plantations more humane, rewarding and welcoming.
Working conditions at the plantations are hard and the living environment is uninviting. It is not surprising that Malaysians are generally not prepared to work on the plantations. Given the demanding nature of the job and the generally inhospitable living conditions on oil palm plantations, which are not factored into the low wages, plantation companies are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit labour from the traditional sources such as Indonesia where wages comparable to salaries offered in Malaysia.
Recruitment: “I was promised a job in a rose garden,” said a Nepali worker as he surveyed the neat, endless rows of tall oil palms in Perak. Most Indian and Nepali workers were recruited by private agencies whereas Bangladeshi workers were recruited on a government –to –government scheme, although that did not completely preclude the involvement of private labour agencies.
Workers often report that the type of work they are given is different from what was promised; many were under the impression that they would be working in factories in urban areas. This already indicates the element of fraud and deception which is a component of human trafficking within the recruitment process.
Regardless, many of them or their families had sold their houses, land, jewellery and property or borrowed money at exorbitant rates in order to get the jobs in Malaysia. For example, Gurun from Nepal paid his agent the equivalent of RM5,000 for which he took a loan from a money lender. He estimates that it will take him at least one and half years at his current wage to pay off the debt including the annual 35% interest.
Employment contracts: “I signed two contracts, one in Nepal and another after arriving here. It is a thick pile of papers and I don’t even know how to read or write. I just put my thumbprint on it. As long as I have a job and they pay me well it is enough.” - 23year-old Nepali worker in Perak.
The employment contracts are typically for three years. Some of the workers state that they were given a copy of the contract. However, none of the workers was able to explain the content of the contract. On the other hand, workers from India state they were not given any copy of the employment contract.
Retention of passports: Passports of the workers are withheld by the company/employers (management). They are given I-card in lieu of passport with the work permit. The workers said that with the I-Card, they can travel to the nearby town, but if they travelled further afield to other cities, they could run into problems with the police or immigration authorities. They would be detained and would have to depend on the employer to get them out, or they would have to “belanja” (pay) to get out of detention
In some cases, the estate management provided a form of identification/ letter indicating that the particular person is a worker from that estate and has permission to travel out. The letter/identification is only provided upon request; therefore the workers feel that they do not have the freedom to go out of the working site when they need to. This is an unwarranted restriction on the worker’s freedom of movement.
Transportation to worksite: Transportation to the work site is by a tractor which is also used to carry palm oil fruits, fertiliser and other goods. Some workers prefer to use their own bicycles or motorbikes, or to walk, (30 -60 minutes) because the tractors are not punctual to bring them back after work; priority is given to transportation of palm oil fruit bunches and fertilisers and other goods.
Safety: “We only use the face masks till about 10 am because as it gets hotter and we sweat more, the goggles become blurry and block the eyesight,” said Dev (not his real name), Bangladeshi migrant worker, Johor.
Sprayers have to undergo compulsory medical check-up once a year. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is provided for sprayers but they are not used at all time, especially masks and goggles. This indicates that the goggles are not ergonomic and not suitable for Malaysian climate. The suitability of the goggles used in the plantation needs to be examined because this PPE is highly essential to protect the sprayer against toxic danger.
Sometimes general workers have to carry out “tree injections” to control an infestation of oil palm by pests such as bagworms. The holes drilled into the trunk of the palm are filled with very highly toxic chemicals (Class 1B) such as methamidophos and monocrotophos; exposure to these chemicals may be through oral, dermal or inhalation.
These workers are provided PPE such as apron, mask, gloves, and boots. The gloves and masks need to be changed every day, but they are replaced usually every two days. This is very distressing as there are tremendous hazardous impacts on their health.
They are paid a basic salary of RM1,000 for this hazardous job. Workers’ understanding of the dangers of these chemicals seems to be limited, and hence the likelihood of chronic poisoning is high.
Health: “If we need to visit the clinic more than twice a month, the hospital assistant is annoyed and will ask us, why you come again and again. If we are very sick and cannot work, we have to pay RM10 in order to get a medical certificate. Without the RM10 payment, we won’t be given medical leave and we will not get any wages for that day. Sometimes we force ourselves to go to work even though we are not well because we don’t want to lose our wages for the day” said a Bangladeshi worker in Perak.
There are clinics on the estate in most plantations but workers feel that it can only deal with minor illnesses such as a cough, flu or fever. They complain that they feel very unwelcome and that treatment is perfunctory.
Living conditions: “During our off days, my friends and I cannot stay in the container after 11 in the morning, because it becomes very hot and humid, it is really unbearable. So we just go to work, and we get no rest. We only return after the sun sets, then the container becomes less hot,” said an Indonesian worker, Johor.
The quality of housing provided for the workers varies very much. In some estates, the housing consists of a semi-D house with three rooms, a hall and a kitchen for four to six persons
However, in most places, the living conditions are intolerable as reflected in the pictures. In one instance, the accommodation was a shipping container. Workers reported that the container longhouse is extremely hot and they cannot use it to have a comfortable rest.
In some cases, there is a 24-hour free supply of running water, in other instances, water is provided only in the morning and in the evening. In many cases the living conditions are poor and unhygienic, sometimes with chemical containers in close proximity to living quarters or stored alongside food items, The toilets are filthy and at most times, the same water is used for bathing, cooking and drinking.
Wages: Wages are based on “piece-rate”, i.e. the amount received by the worker depends on the output, like the number of fruit bunches harvested (measured in kilogrammes), the area where herbicides or fertilisers have been applied (measured in hectares), or the number of trees that have been pruned.
This wage system is often referred to as “productivity-linked wages”, as opposed to fixed daily or monthly wages. In reality, the term “productivity-linked wages’ is a euphemism for wages crudely based on output i.e. the higher the output, the higher the wages, irrespective of how long it takes to produce the output or how difficult the task.
Productivity on the other hand takes into consideration all inputs that have bearing on the output, e.g. health and height of the oil palms, terrain on which the palms are planted, condition of access roads and surroundings, quality and type of equipment and personal protective equipment (PPE), training, skill level and health of worker.
Given that the statutory minimum wage is RM1,000 per month (for 26 days work and four rest days), the management allocates work in such a manner that the “ordinary” worker, working at an “ordinary” pace for eight hours is able to earn RM38.46 per day. That is ideal, but the “ordinary” worker and “ordinary” pace of work is anything but ordinary. The crass output-based wage system dehumanises the worker and views them simply as factors of production.
In reality, workers earn only anything between RM500 to RM2,000 per month. Furthermore, the wages earned per month vary too (depending on whether it is “high crop” and “low crop” season). One challenge that plantation companies should address is how to ensure that all workers are able to consistently earn wages that are commensurate with the difficult work that they do, without having to work excessive hours.
In some estates, sprayers are paid a RM1,000 basic salary per month and earn an additional RM500 as overtime working 11 hours per day.
The agreement signed by Nepalese workers also states that the company shall provide 5kg of rice and 5kg of cooking oil every two months, but they only receive 5kg of rice without the oil every two months.
The way ahead
The Principles and Criteria for certification to the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) do contain some requirements regarding labour and migrant rights but they don’t seem to have trickled down to the workers who are largely ignorant or sceptical about them.
Many plantation companies, especially those certified to RSPO have, in fact, begun to pay more serious attention to the human side of producing palm oil. Conditions for work and living in some plantations have improved and - in some cases - are better than what has been described above.
Nevertheless, the fact that Tenaganita, with its very limited resources and access to plantations, was able to find so many instances of violations of human rights and fair labour principles suggests that there is much more work to be done by management of plantation companies to make oil palm plantations a truly preferred place of work not only for migrant workers but also for the local population.
Even among the largest plantation companies which take pride in their enlightened, progressive labour policies, the implementation of these policies is patchy and not uniformly consistent across all estates.
In conclusion, all the plantation companies must comply with the Malaysian statutory requirements for wages, safety and health, housing and amenities of migrant workers. As we know, Malaysian palm oil companies, on the whole, are global players and as such they must adhere accordingly to the global standards in managing the human side of their industry.
The companies should also assimilate and internalise the frameworks enshrined in the various ILO core conventions and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, for it continues to build on the existing standard established by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
Migrant workers in the plantation sector expect and deserve no less.
GLORENE A DAS Glorene A Das is executive director, Tenaganita Women's Force, an NGO dedicated to assisting, building, advocating and protecting migrants, refugees, women and children.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.