ABOUT 85 per cent of workers in oil palm plantations in Malaysia are from Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Cambodia and India. In some plantations, there are also Rohingya workers.
These workers are involved in harvesting ripe fruits, pruning trees, applying fertilisers, transporting fruit bunches to mills and spraying herbicides.
Malaysians are not prepared to work in plantations.
Given the demanding nature of the job, the inhospitable living conditions and low wages, plantation companies find it difficult to recruit labour from traditional sources such as Indonesia.
Most Indian and Nepali workers are recruited by private agencies while Bangladeshi workers were recruited on a government-to-government scheme.
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 indicates fraud and deception in the recruitment process.
Many of them or their families sold property, jewellery or borrowed money at exorbitant rates to get jobs in Malaysia.
The employment contracts are typically for three years.
Transportation to the work site is by tractor, which is also used to carry oil palm fruits, fertilisers and other goods.
Some workers prefer to use their own bicycles or motorcycles, or walk (30 minutes to an hour) to the work site, because the tractors are not punctual.
Priority is given to the transportation of oil palm fruit bunches, fertilisers and other goods.
Accommodation for the workers vary.
In some estates, it consists of a semi-detached house with three rooms, a hall and a kitchen for four to six occupants.
In other estates, the conditions are deplorable, with filthy toilets and rationed water supply.
In one instance, the living quarters were a shipping container that had been converted into a longhouse.
Wages are based on piece rate. 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 number of trees that have been pruned.
This wage system is often referred to as productivity-linked wages, as opposed to fixed wages .
Given that the statutory minimum wage is RM1,000 per month for 26 days of work and four rest days, the management allocates work in such a manner that ordinary workers, working at an ordinary pace of eight hours, can earn RM38.46 per day.
That is the ideal, but ordinary workers and ordinary pace of work are anything but ordinary.
In reality, workers earn between RM500 and RM2,000 per month.
Furthermore, the monthly wages varies, depending on highcrop or low-crop season.
One challenge that plantation companies should address is how to ensure that workers earn wages that commensurate with the difficult work that they do without having to work extra hours.
The principles and criteria for certification of the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) contain requirements regarding labour and migrant rights, but they don’t seem to have trickled down to the workers.
While many plantation companies, especially those RSPO-certified, have begun to pay attention to the human side of producing palm oil with improving work and living conditions, there are instances of human rights violation.
Fair-labour principles suggest that there is much more to be done to make oil palm plantations a preferred place of work for foreign and local workers.
Plantation companies must comply with the Malaysian statutory requirements for wages, safety and health, housing and amenities of the workers.
Malaysian palm oil companies are mostly global players.
As such, they must work according to global standards in managing the human side of the industry.
The companies should assimilate and internalise the frameworks enshrined in the core conventions of the International Labour Organisation and the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
GLORENE A. DAS
Tenaganita executive director