From an unknown to a global commodity
Shortage of workers
Paul Wong said the shortage of workers is the main concern for the industry in Sarawak.
“Today, […] even smallholders have more money and no longer work in the plantations themselves – they employ workers. The shortage of workers is a huge issue for us. If you look at the bigger and better managed plantations like United Plantations Bhd, the average yield is close to 26 tonnes. However, the average yield for Sarawak is only 16 tonnes.
It is clear that the industry has not realised its full potential, and one of the key constraints is that we do not have enough workers coming in. This shortage is a challenge that needs to be addressed urgently.”
Dato’ Bek-Nielsen said that, while the oil palm industry has a relatively small percentage of foreign workers – less than 15% of those legally employed in Malaysia – it contributes 8% to the country’s GDP. He offered a suggestion:
“Our industry can easily attract workers if we are given the right to recruit them. The earnings in plantations are good, and the companies provide them with free housing, free water, medical [benefits] and electricity [supply]. Which other industry in Malaysia does that?
There should be a certain number of foreign workers allowed to come in to work legally, and then we won’t have any problem. It would be a win-win situation. It is not that our industry doesn’t want to innovate or move forward. We all want to try to minimise our dependency on [foreign] workers, but this takes time.”
Tan Sri Lee said the current system of recruiting foreign workers is too complex and time-consuming. Unless this is improved, the shortage will persist:
“Look at our immigration system. Twenty years ago, it was an arduous process to get a passport. Look at it now – it is so well done. The authorities could have easily done the same thing for the process of bringing [foreign] workers into the plantation industry, if there was the will to do it. There may be reasons why this cannot be done, but the current process is [time-consuming].
In our industry, when you cannot bring in workers on time, you cannot pass the baton [as in a relay race]. When you don’t have workers, you lose the crop. For every tonne of crop that we lose, the government loses an equal significant share [of revenue].
I think the government has to realise that it has to have a system within the plantation industry, where they can monitor the number of people that we bring in. They can ensure that only legal workers are employed in our plantations. If you don’t change the system, this problem will persist. It will not be resolved.”