Not all work and no play in plantations

SABAH, being the biggest player in the labour intensive oil palm sector in Malaysia, definitely requires many workers.

However, according to Asia Pacific Journal of Advanced Business and Social Studies entitled Perception of Local Youth in Sabah Towards Career in Oil Palm Plantation, more than 80 per cent of plantation labourers in this state mainly came from Indonesia and the Philippines.

The pressing issue now is the rising social problems arising from the hiring of illegal foreign workers, and the best answer is to hire local youths.

Nevertheless, the problem is compounded by the fact that it is difficult to hire the local youth workers and the progress in mechanization has also not been encouraging.

In a recent interview with The Borneo Post, Sabahmas Plantation Estates, Lahad Datu group manager Asrif bin Mahmud said the company had been offering locals to work in its three estates but the local youths claimed that working in the agricultural sector was as burden and tiresome.

“I am not sure about the other companies, but I take Sabahmas as an example. We have a total of 1,424 staff and workers at the moment, comprising 1,296 foreign workers, 66 local workers and the remaining 62 are executive and staff.

“I personally think that our local youths are not aware that there are so many plantation companies in Sabah providing good facilities to their workers.

“In Sabahmas, we provide proper housing with free electricity and clean water, mosque and chapel, clinic, and even creche – a nursery where babies and young children are cared for during the working day. Most of our workers never leave the company and even bring in their relatives if there is a vacancy,” he said.

Training Field Conductor, Jerrye Gustin, who joined the company two and a half years ago said it was his passion that leads him to the job.

The 30-year-old, who was born in Beluran, said he was raised in a farming family and oil palm is not alien to him.

“My father is an oil palm planter, and I used to help him. After finishing my high school, I did not go anywhere but helped my family in farming and looking after the small plantation. I even attended an agriculture course, learning about planting and oil palm maintenance.

“After reaching the age of 25, I knew I need to look for a job because I cannot depend on my father’s land. However, I don’t want to work at the city because most of my friends working there are coming back without savings. They said life is tough and price of goods are high.

“I was so lucky because my cousin told me about a vacancy in Sabahmas Plantation. It has been a while for me holding this position and currently I have 47 staff under me. I can see my bright future here because many locals were given the opportunity to hold higher position as long as you are very good at what you are doing,” he said.

Jerrye is currently looking after the landscape Sabahmas headquarters area and personally doing the grass cutting and other works, including paper work.

To him, looking at the opportunities given to most of the managers in the company to grow in their career, he believed,  obviously none of them went from being a grass cutter or ‘mandur’to a manager overnight.

He said, each of them worked at the company for over a decade before progressing in their career to allow them to get into their roles.

Therefore, he said the characteristics that all of these people shared are determination, the hunger to succeed over the long-term and loyalty to the company.

“I hope there will be more locals working in the plantation. However, they need to choose the right companies by looking at the certification, for example, in Sabahmas we are RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certified, so everything is systematic. The company is committed in providing comfortable and a safe workplace, which is very important to me.

“Most of my friends who refused to work in the plantation will give two popular reasons, namely low wages and instability of income, but it is very confusing when they earn more in the city but do not have any savings,” he said

Another thing that Jerrye learned since he worked in the company was the importance of looking after the environment by not simply hunting and fishing in the plantation area.

Jerrye said his income in the plantation is a four-figure and there is not much expenses since the house was provided with electricity and clean water supply by the company. Every month, he set aside some money for his parents and also savings.

Since working in plantation starts at 5.30am until 2pm only, Jerrye said there was a lot of time for other activities such as sporting activities and farming around their housing. “Life is never boring in the estate.”

As for Indonesian couple, Isham Harris, 49, and his wife Mare Habe, 45, who have been with the company since the land clearing in 1994, working in plantation is the best job they ever had.

They never have any other plans in the future, but continue working in the company until as long as they want.

“We arrived at Sabahmas when the previous company (before being taken over by Sabahmas) was just starting to clear the land. We had all our four children here.

“Two of them are already working, one is currently studying in one of the universities in Jakarta, another one is still studying in Humana School here. The company is very committed in giving education to our children and providing space for Humana School to operate, which give children of migrant workers access to education,” said Isham.

Mare, who is working at the company’s creche, said workers in the estate were very lucky for having a proper place for their children to stay while working in the field.

Previously, mothers with small kids, would bring them to the field because there was no one at home to look after the little ones. She said it was dangerous, especially when their work involved handling chemicals.

“The environment in the plantation has changed compared to the first time we arrived. We are happier now, because the minimum wage for local workers also applies to foreign workers.

“We have been staying here for more than 23 years and we are looking forward to serve the company as long as it needs us. What more can we ask for when everything is provided here,” she added.

In Sabahmas estates, its management encourages workers to celebrate Hari Raya, Christmas and other celebrations together to ensure the locals and foreigners have good relationships.

Every Hari Raya Aidiladha, the company will sacrifice buffalo from the Buffalo Project for the workers.

Sports carnival is also one of the annual activities in the estate that keeps workers play together as a team.

While some youths prefer to work in the city and even migrate to the peninsula because they cannot find any jobs in the state, but what they forgot is that that opportunities are everywhere here.

All they need to do is find some time choosing the right company and start from the bottom and work their way up.

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