Sabah firm ends practice of holding migrant workers’ passports

Reuters pic

KOTA KINABALU: An oil palm plantation company in Lahad Datu has become the first company in the state to end the practice of retaining passports of its migrant workers.

Wilmar International Limited (Wilmar) has installed 10,000 easy-to-access lockers at its Sabahmas Plantation office, at a cost of RM26 per locker, to store individual worker’s passports.

An Indonesian worker retrieving his passport from the self-access locker.

Previously, it could take up to two days and layers of approval for foreign workers to get their passport from the safekeeping of the company before they can travel outside the plantation.

Now, they only have to obtain leave and go to the Passport Room to retrieve their passports from the metal lockers, using their own assigned keys.

According to Wilmar’s group sustainability general manager Perpetua George, the company decided to return passports to workers despite the initial concern that the workers would abscond — a typical problem faced by oil palm plantations.

She said the company recognised that passport retention could be an indicator of forced labour by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Perpetua said this practice is common across Malaysia, not just in the oil palm sector.

“The welfare of our workers is important to us as they form the backbone of our plantation operations. We see a higher level of trust between the company and workers as a result of this passport initiative.

“We’ve also received very good feedback on the locker system as the workers feel more secure with a safe place to keep their important documents.

“We have shown that it is possible to take positive steps towards human rights and labour rights improvements,” she said at the official handover of locker keys to workers recently.

High employee retention rate

Perpetua added that the company will continue to make other improvements in best practices, such as ensuring comfortable housing and education for children of foreign workers.

Perpetua George says there was initial concern that the workers would abscond.

She said Wilmar has a high employee retention rate because the company provides proper housing and medical benefits as well as fair pay to its workers.

She believes that with the increased freedom of movement, the company has built another layer of trust with the workers.

Sabah has the highest number of migrant workers in the country, with most of them working in the state’s huge oil palm industry.

A vast majority of these workers are from neighbouring Indonesia, with the Indonesian consulate in Kota Kinabalu estimating their number to be as high as 500,000.