The announcement by Minister of Human Resources Dato Sri Richard Riot Jaem that the state would be recruiting 12,000 workers from Bangladesh has sparked a mixed reaction of alarm and relief.
Their imminent arrival raised fears they would deprive locals of job opportunities and their presence could spawn social problems.
The first concern was addressed by Riot’s assurance that the Bangladeshis would only be working in the plantation sector where they would take jobs shunned by locals.
This arrangement is a great relief for plantation companies suffering from perpetual labour shortage.
Every year millions of ringgit are lost through uncollected fruits and trees left untapped in oil palm and rubber estates.
However, while their presence is welcomed by plantation owners, their sheer number may create a ‘Sabah’ situation in Sarawak where foreigners outnumber locals in certain areas.
This is a very real possibility in small towns, villages and longhouses near oil palm plantations.
The population of these settlements is small and their numbers are further reduced by the rural- urban drift of young working adults leaving only the very young and old people behind.
It is not unusual for villages to have a population of just several hundred and small towns with just a couple of thousand residents.
No study has been done on the social impact of an influx of foreigners into sparsely populated areas but the situation in our neighbouring state and in our nation’s capital does not bode well for rural areas if they were overwhelmed by foreign workers.
While the Ministry of Human Resources should be lauded for solving the labour shortage plaguing the plantation sector, it should also put in place measures to mitigate the social impact of foreigners flooding our rural areas.
Our experience with Indonesian workers in our plantation although not trouble-free has been generally positive.
In fact they form the backbone of the labour force in our oil palm plantation.
Their capacity for hard work and skill especially in harvesting and pruning made them almost indispensible in plantations.
But their strongest point is their willingness to accept low pay for the hard work in plantations.
Riot missed the point when he rationalised the mass intake of Bangladeshi workers by assuring that they would be taking up the three ‘D’ work which locals shy away from.
It is not the three ‘Ds’, Dirty, Difficult and Dangerous, that deters locals from working in plantations, it is the ‘W’ for Wages that is the stumbling block.
The average pay for an oil palm plantation worker in the state is RM30 per day plus lodging.
If a worker was lucky enough not to fall sick he could earn RM780 per month working 26 days a month – just short of the minimum wage.
It is nigh impossible to employ local workers for this kind of pay.
Sarawak workers have proven they are willing to go anywhere in the world to work even in the dangerous oil-fields of the Middle-East if the pay is right.
The trend among ‘smart’ local workers now is to opt for contract work where they would be paid for looking after and harvesting a certain area in the plantation.
This might be a smart idea for the workers but the employers end up at their mercy as the workers are their own ‘boss’ in their area and could be difficult to manage.
The best deal for plantation owners is still employing daily-paid workers and since locals turn their noses on this employment their only option is to turn to foreign workers.
However, even foreign workers are hard to come by now for companies relying on those from Indonesia.
The emergence of oil palm plantations in Indonesia poses a serious competition for labour in that industry as many experienced plantation workers opt to work in their country.
With supply of cheap labour from Indonesia drying up the state’s plantation sector is turning to Bangladesh .
But Bangladeshi workers are a different ‘kettle of fish’ as they do not share a common language and cultural roots with us.
Transplanting such a huge group of workers from a country with a different culture and language will result in an inevitable culture shock for them and the communities affected by their presence.
The concerns over the impact of their presence on the local communities are genuine and should not be brushed aside as ‘propaganda spread by NGOs to discredit the government’.
The government must work with the plantations to manage their presence in the local communities.