Planters call for flexible foreign worker intake system

KUALA LUMPUR: Oil palm planters want the government to re-activate the fast-track system for foreign worker intake approval or allow agents to bring in the extra hands to harvest some five million tonnes of oil palm fruits rotting in the fields.

Malaysian Estate Owners Association (MEOA) president Boon Weng Siew said the industry, which has been over-dependent on Indonesian workers to harvest the oil palm fruits, now find it increasingly difficult to recruit workers from the republic because of competition from plantation expansion there.

"Although the government has recently allowed recruitment from Bangadesh, it is on government-to-government basis," he said. "The negotiations with Bangladesh is taking too long. Many estates continue to face acute labour shortage to harvest the oil palm fruits," he added.

"The oil palm industry has been losing billions of ringgit in palm oil export earnings every year," he told Business Times in a telephone interview from Johor Bahru yesterday.

He estimated that some five million tonnes of oil palm fruits are rotting in the fields. That is equivalent to a million tonnes of crude palm oil. At current pricing of RM2,500 per tonne, that translates to RM2.5 billion in opportunity loss of export earnings.

"Foreign workers, which used to make up half of the 600,000 workforce in the estates, have now been severely reduced," he said. "We urge that foreign worker intake not be confined to government-to-government negotiation with Bangladesh. Agents should be allowed to bring in foreign workers from any country," Boon said.

"Otherwise, the government should re-activate the foreign worker intake approval fast-track system under the Plantation Industries and Commodities Ministry. This is almost equivalent to a one-stop centre. Planters prefer this option rather than having to deal with three or four ministries," he added.

Established in 1931, MEOA represents small- and medium-sized estates of more than 40 hectares.

Boon highlighted that plantation companies have always been offering productivity-based salaries. A harvester, for instance, can earn between RM1,800 and RM2,000 a month, depending on the quantity and quality of fruit bunches he harvests. "A family of three working together can earn up to RM3,000," he said.

Furthermore, the job offers housing, uninterrupted supply of electricity and piped water, medical, schooling and recreation facilities free of charge by the estate owners. These are now enjoyed by the foreign workers.

IOI Corp Bhd executive chairman Tan Sri Lee Shin Cheng yesterday concurred with Boon and reiterated the call for the government to be more flexible in foreign worker intakes.

"The trees are fruiting but there's acute shortage of harvesters and this is affecting the country's palm oil export earnings. The industry has been finding ways to mechanise for the last 40 years and the reality is it is difficult to mechanise. If it were that easy, we would have done it a long time ago," Lee told reporters after the company's shareholders' meeting here yesterday.

Lee said plantation companies understand and fully support the government policy to employ more locals and enhance mechanised harvesting on the estates. The reality is far from expectations.

Many young locals entering the labour market are just not interested in menial jobs like the harvesting of oil palm fruits. "We do not want to be too dependent on foreign labour, but do we have any other feasible and practical alternatives?" he questioned.