Sarawak’s oil palm plantation sector is in dire need of foreign workers


KUCHING: Sarawak’s oil palm plantation sector is in dire need of foreign workers and the Covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated this labour shortage to a breaking point.

Sarawak Oil Palm Plantation Owners Association (SOPPOA) chief executive officer Dr Felix Moh said oil palm plantations in Sarawak were highly dependent on foreign workers.

“While other states are open to different nationalities, Sarawak only allows migrant workers from Indonesia in its agricultural sectors,” he said.

He said that for the last two years, there had practically been no new foreign workers entering as international borders were closed to curb the spread of Covid-19.

As a result, he said, the oil palm plantations were unable to replenish vacancies left by foreign workers who had returned to their respective home countries prior to the pandemic.

“Sarawak was estimated to be short of 45,000 foreign workers in November last year, whereby about 70 to 80 per cent of them are in the harvesting team.

“At the time, most plantation companies were operating at 50 per cent less workers.

“It is anticipated that the shortage will further intensify when more are expected to leave their workplace as their contracts are expiring and they do not wish to extend,” he said.

Moh said Malaysia’s crude palm oil price had hit RM5,000 a tonne in October last year and another record high at RM6,000 on Feb 17.

However, the local palm oil companies could not enjoy the full benefit of the pricing as 20 to 30 per cent of the present palm fruits were left unharvested and rotten due to insufficient harvesters.

“The losses incurred by the company also mean a loss of opportunity for the government to generate more revenue through collection of corporate tax,” he said.

“As the oil palm planted area expanded over the years, the requirement for the total number of workers has increased similarly.”

“Based on the planted size, there were 1,400 workers employed by Sarawak oil palm plantation companies in 1975. However, today, these companies require 160,000 workers to achieve optimal operation,” he said.

Moh explained that there were essentially six main job categories in oil palm plantation operations – namely field conductors, harvesters and collectors, field workers, other field workers, executive, and administration and clerical.

He said lack of interest, negative perception, and having different skill sets are a few reasons why plantation companies are unable to rely on locals to work in their plantations.

“A large volume of rural migrations to urban areas to take up employment opportunities in the last few decades has also contributed to the labour shortage.”

“This has eventually led to the current dependency on foreign workers, who made up about 80 per cent of the total workforce in Sarawak oil palm plantations.”

Moh said the recruitment process for foreign workers was a tedious one due to multi-ministry involvement, adding that time and resources were wasted during these processes.

For example, he said, the process from submitting an application for recruiting foreign workers to approval will take not less than six to eight months, which has resulted in a serious backlog of applications to fill up overdue vacancies.

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