FOR the past couple of years – during the coronavirus pandemic with all the restrictions on the movement of people and goods within and between countries – we Malaysians can consider ourselves lucky in two fronts.
We possess two kinds of oil: palm oil and petroleum.
Exports of these two products have not been as badly affected by the virus as by the restrictions on the travel and the hospitality industry.
The oil palm industry could have produced more oil had the fruit harvesters been easily available.
Planters in Sarawak
Apart from the participants in the schemes managed by the Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (Salcra), there are some 200 oil palm smallholders in Sarawak.
They planted the crop on their Native Customary Rights (NCR) land. Each family’s ‘kebun’ (plot) has been a real help in terms of generating income, in addition to other sources of the income like pepper or rubber.
It is good that smallholders have been able to produce good quality fruits, acceptable to the millers. This enables the mills to operate on full capacity. Happy are the owners of the bulking installations to store the crude oil that is ever ready for shipment. And the ports have been operating without serious interruptions.
Moreover, the demand for the edible oil from the countries with large populations such as China and India has been constantly steady – Covid-19 or no Covid-19.
That is the beauty of the palm oil; it is food. Humans cannot do without food for long.
Compare the situation experienced by the tourism industry. In the hospitality business, people can postpone, or opt not to travel for the time being.
The prospects in the palm oil business in the world market are bright, so much so that the industry people have been talking about sending more oil to countries in the Middle East and Africa.
Africa! It was in Nigeria where oil palm was first planted, remember?
Shortage of workers
And now, the problem: there is a serious manpower shortage.
What’s the solution?
I wonder if the government and the captains of the oil palm industry had been putting their heads together to overcome the shortage of fruit harvesters.
I think there is the problem with the government itself in the sense that when government approves of the recruitment of foreign workers in general, they want to be fair to every employer – to please every industry; in the end, nobody is pleased.
Foreign workers are distributed to all industries – restaurants, road and building construction, factories of all description in the Klang Valley.
The harvester shortage is lumped together with the others; in the process, the plantations in Sarawak get a scant attention. There appears to be lack of interest shown by the federal ministry in charge of plantations. How many times have we had the honour of a visit by the federal minister in charge of plantations?
Employers, especially those in Peninsular Malaysia, are talking about workers for restaurants and factories; their lobby is very effective. In Sarawak, the main problem is a shortage of palm oil harvesters; there is no problem of shortage of restaurant or factory workers.
Importance of incentives
The stakeholders must put their heads together and think outside the box. They should try out new ideas. These are not so new ideas.
When the colonial planters came to Malaya to plant rubber, they employed people from India.
Before the workers arrived, proper housing had been prepared for them. They were going to live in the estates because that was where the trees were, ready for tapping.
In 1902, the Sarawak government under Rajah Charles Brooke struck a deal with Wong Nai Siong of China. Wong was entrusted money to bring in a large group of Foochows into Sarawak as new settlers, with the incentive that the settlers would be given land to till and to own.
If I may suggest, the Sarawak government should empower one of the ministries to be responsible specifically for looking after the interests of the oil palm industry in the state.
Does that make sense?
The state, together with the local planters, need to have the power and the authority to select workers for our plantations. I think Sarawak should opt for harvesters from Indonesia; they are more familiar with our conditions.
Not all foreign workers are fit for plantation work in this country, as many prefer restaurants or factories sited in towns and cities.
The government must insist on the employers providing the workers with decent living quarters, clean water and electricity.
The workers must have access to normal healthcare services. For instance, the Flying Doctor Service should also include visits to oil plantations, in addition to visiting the remote longhouses and villages.
Where the harvesters have families with children, the government of the workers’ country should provide schools for the children. The local consulates may be consulted on this matter.
It should not be a problem for a well-managed plantation company to provide all the basic human needs.
Let’s get one thing clear: Sarawakians must not think that these benefits are meant only for foreign workers. If conditions and wages are good, locals would seek employment in the plantation industry too.
Well-built living quarters equipped with the basic facilities and are properly maintained, will last for a long time.
When the foreign workers leave after their work contracts expire, the locally-employed workforce can carry on enjoying the facilities.
It is high time that we produce more harvesters from the local community. That would sustain the oil palm industry for a long time without relying entirely on foreign labour.
Personal accidents and workman’s compensation schemes should be provided for all workers, foreign or local. Where locals are employed, the relevant organisations like the Socso and the EPF would deal with the matter of social benefits.
If we want to keep the goose that lays the golden egg healthy, we have got to look after the bird! Otherwise, the shortage of fruit harvesters would continue to haunt the industry.
Unless and until a better and more efficient method of harvesting the palm fruits is invented, feasible and cheap, the industry has to rely on the brawn and muscles of humans.