More workers needed to harvest oil palm fruits

KUALA LUMPUR: Sarawak Oil Palm Plantation Owners Association (Soppoa) reiterated the industry’s need for more workers to harvest oil palm fruits at the fields.

Soppoa estimated that millions of tonnes of fruit bunches are wasted in the fields as planters lack manpower to harvest them. 

It had estimate for harvest 17.5 million tonnes of oil palm fruit bunches or 3.5 million tonnes of crude palm oil this year.

Assuming there is a 15 per cent wastage or loss of 500,000 tonnes of crude palm oil, that works out to 2.5 million tonnes of fruit bunches left rotting across Sarawak's oil palm fields. 

At a conservative pricing of RM2,200 per tonne, it translates into at least RM1.1 billion loss in export opportunity.

"There is little alternative but to seek hiring of foreign workers," said Soppoa chairman, Paul Wong, in a telephone interview from Miri yesterday.

Wong expressed gratitude for Sarawak government’s plan to bring in 12,000 Bangladeshi workers for the state’s plantation sector.

He also highlighted that many Native Customary Reserve landowners are starting their own estates and they in turn look for workers to help out.

Sarawak’s mega projects at Similaju Industrial Park, the oil and gas industry and others are also attracting locals to work there, which substantially reduces the number of Malaysian manpower.

Hence, plantation firms have no choice but to turn to hire foreign hands to overcome labour shortage, he said. 

"When we hire foreign workers from either Indonesia or Bangladesh, the companies must fulfill various conditions including placing advertisements in radio, print media and with the Labor Department Sarawak, and to undertake commitments for proper housing, bank guarantees and other labor law requirements stipulated for engaging these workers.

"We have no choice. All these obligations in hiring foreign workers, including levies and other incidental recruitment add costs for companies involved in hiring foreign workers," he said.

All this while, oil palm planters have been paying minimum wages, cooking oil cess, research and marketing cess, sales taxes to Sarawak governments, on top of the usual corporate tax and foreign worker levies.

As the highest taxpayers on a sectorial capita basis, Wong said it is timely that due recognition be given to oil palm planters' critical contribution to Malaysia's economy. 

"The palm oil industry forms the backbone of Malaysia's economy. We earn US$20 billion per year in palm oil exports. Facilitative support in the right direction is very much needed to value add this industry," Wong said.