Food Security Discussion SeriesMalaysian oil palm and Indonesian labour migration: a perspective from Sarawak
Summary by Dr Jane O'Sullivan

Thursday, 20 October 2016
Sunny Sanderson

Sunny Sanderson’s PhD is exploring the impacts of large-scale oil palm development on rural livelihoods in Sarawak. While not setting out to focus on migrant labourers, their pervasive presence and the hostility and distrust with which they are often regarded by Malaysian locals led her to take a closer look at their plight. Her fluency in Indonesian allowed her to undertake an in-depth case study on the livelihoods of labourers on plantations across the State, covering the spectrum of key stakeholders and employers.

The oil palm industry has grown meteorically since 1990, now providing a third of vegetable oil globally. Oil yields are up to five times greater than rapeseed (canola), and 10 times more than soy oil. Malaysia and Indonesia dominate production, currently supplying over 80% of palm oil and still rapidly expanding, but more production is coming online elsewhere in the Pacific and Africa, many developed by Malaysian companies.

But oil palm is a labour-intensive crop, and the work is a classic example of the three-Ds: dirty, difficult and dangerous. The heavy, spiny bunches are harvested with sharp sickles on long poles. Hospital records showed that serious laceration wounds are very common, and they are only seeing legal workers who are near the hospital. Snakes, scorpions and pesticides add to the risks, while workers battle oppressive heat and humidity.  Plantations actively discourage locals from applying for the work, giving local elders tours to demonstrate the difficulty, perhaps to avoid local tension over poor conditions or injuries. Indonesians make up 80-90% of the labour force.

Workers are recruited from throughout Indonesia, usually by agents whom they must pay. The Indonesian government also promotes recruitment to address unemployment and increase remittances. They may enter Malaysia either legally or illegally – the long and remote border across Borneo has many “rat trails”. The number of legal guest workers is estimated between 112,000 and 170,000, but it is regarded as the tip of the iceberg. Illegals can be, and are regularly, arrested, jailed and caned before deportation, often only to cross back and find work elsewhere. Legal entrants commit to a minimum of two years, after which they may extend or return home. Their passports are held by the employer, so they can’t leave the plantation except when the employer provides papers. Some abscond and become illegal workers elsewhere. One company has introduced recruitment via “good workers”, who are sent home to recruit friends and family, hoping that relationships of responsibility and obligation will avoid problematic behaviour among workers.

While most legal and illegal workers manage to send remittances home, many also find it difficult to clear debts and debt bondage can occur. Accommodation is often provided deep within plantations, so workers are completely isolated, with infrequent trips to town. They live in barracks, often housed with their ethnic group. Plantations deliberately recruit workers from different regions, seen as countering each other’s weaknesses and avoiding strong allegiance. In some Estates workers are obliged to pay elevated prices for food due to their inability to easily travel to town, making it difficult to clear debt.

Sunny introduced us to several of the workers she met. Most were young men and couples, many having left children at home to be raised by grandparents. Many had not seen their family for years, but mobile phones are a lifeline. One woman had brought her four-year-old son, who was now seven but had no access to school. It is estimated that around 60,000 children have been born to migrant workers on plantations, rendering them effectively stateless and uneducated.

With the help of mobile phones, Indonesian workers are increasingly able to warn others in their network about places to avoid. A plantation on steep land was finding it increasingly hard to recruit. Malaysia estimates a worker shortage in the tens of thousands. They are now looking at recruiting in Bangladesh and Myanmar, raising the risks of issues stemming from language and cultural differences.

Our discussion questioned what labour rights efforts have done or could do to improve the situation. The biggest problem is the inability to monitor and enforce standards on the ground. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) provides certification for plantations meeting their environmental and social criteria, but some signatories are not renewing as the market is not rewarding the RSPO brand with premiums. 

Sunny has published this work as a chapter in the book, “The Oil Palm Complex: Smallholders, Agribusiness and the State in Indonesia and Malaysia”, edited by Professor Rob Cramb. You’ll find it in the UQ library.

More presentations from the Food Security Discussion Series can be found here.

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