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If only GLCs had hired ex-estate workers

 | February 27, 2016

The shortage of plantation labour may be linked to the marginalisation of former estate communities.

COMMENT

palm-oil-workerSome people claim that without Bangladeshi workers, some companies would be unable to maintain their massive profits. It is alleged that these companies ensure they keep making plenty of money by depressing wages, and the only people willing to accept low-paying jobs are foreigners.

Another allegation is that companies are averse to employing Malaysians because they would have to pay them the minimum wage, contribute to EPF and Socso, and provide medical benefits and other perks, depending on the nature of the job. Some companies probably deny the migrant workers many of their rights.

A few decades ago, the government and the GLCs opened up massive acreages for palm oil plantations throughout Malaysia. Why didn’t they absorb the workers who lost their jobs in the many small estates that either had to close down or were integrated into these large plantations? These workers, mostly Indians, were left to fend for themselves, and many drifted into towns and lived in slums.

Some have alleged that the government and the GLCs deliberately neglected the established estate communities so that these people could be disbanded and their temples destroyed and their schools shut down.

Did this neglect cause the current shortage of workers in the plantation sector? Was this a ploy to enable the recruitment of migrant workers so that wages could be kept low?

Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi claimed that it was market demand that prompted Putrajaya to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Bangladesh government for the import of 1.5 million workers. However, perhaps in reaction to criticism, he subsequently announced that the intake had been suspended to enable the government to “study the issue.” But this was followed by a statement from the Bangladesh Overseas Employment Ministry that the supposed suspension was just “an eyewash.”

So who is right? And shouldn’t the government have made the study before signing the MOU? This is a clear case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Despite the freeze, Malaysians remain skeptical about the government’s motives.

Why would the Bangladeshis want to come to Malaysia? The simple fact is that we have jobs and not enough people to do them.

Why are Malaysians not interested in these jobs? The usual answer is that the pay is minimal and employers are loathe to employ locals because they demand higher wages and all sorts of perks.

One employer who provides a service to the energy industry said, “Bangladeshi workers are cheaper to employ. They learn a skill or trade quickly and work three to five times harder than local workers. They assimilate swiftly.

“They are housed in quarters. Occasionally fights break out, but on the whole, they do not take time off, unlike my local workers and their incessant truancy. Perhaps the local worker is often on leave because his family places great demands on him. Perhaps the Bangladeshi worker, who is here on his own with only his colleagues for company, has no need to be absent.”

It’s probably true that Bangladeshis are good workers. But the employer’s story does not emphasise the sadness of their situation. According to someone in the counselling industry, these workers are exploited by the Bangladeshi agents, the Malaysian agents and dishonest employers.

He said, “These people leave their comfort zones in search of work to provide for their families. They leave behind their wives and children. Many do not get to see their families for several years. They live in dormitories which you and I would not tolerate.

“The Bangladeshi has to pay the local recruiter to obtain the necessary permits, work passes, documentation, medical checks and identification.

“The foreign workers contribute to our economy, and the stories about the increase in social ills in the community are acts committed by a few bad apples.

“But then, some of us treat Bangladeshi workers with utter contempt.”

Mariam Mokhtar is an FMT columnist.

 


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