Improve the lot of women plantation workers, says Tenaganita

Rights group says plantation women workers are involved in ‘nurturing’ jobs such as taking care of oil palm nurseries, weeding, applying fertilisers, spraying pesticides, and general maintenance work. (AFP pic)

KUALA LUMPUR: Drawing attention to the plight of women workers in the palm oil industry, Tenaganita today urged the government, plantation firms and unions to respect the rights and dignity of women workers.

It said women plantation workers had been neglected in the government’s plans to eradicate poverty and enhance the status of women.

“The progress achieved so far in empowering women has been unequal. Women plantation workers still lag behind, since they are unable to free themselves from the vicious cycle of poverty they find themselves in.

“Hence, on Labour Day 2018, Tenaganita calls on the government, labour unions and the plantation industries to respect women workers’ rights and dignity by taking serious measures to uplift the overall status, including the economic status of women workers in oil palm plantation who continue to work tirelessly to make profit possible.”

Tracing the history of women at work in plantations, it said only after 1928, when the Indian Emigration Act was amended, were women allowed to be recruited to work on plantations. This was to balance the male-female ratio in order to ensure a steady stream of workers for the plantations.

“With the passage of time, migrant workers from the region accounting for approximately 85% of the plantation labour force, have all but replaced local workers. Thus while the situation of migrant workers is coming under increasing public scrutiny, women workers who have remained on the plantations have been almost completely neglected.”

Tenaganita also noted that the big companies which produced the oil for food giants usually stated that oil palm was harvested in a way that protected both the environment and the workers, yet plantation women workers were suffering and in much distress.

“Most plantation women workers are involved in ‘nurturing’ jobs such as taking care of oil palm nurseries, weeding, applying fertilisers, spraying pesticides, and general maintenance work. With a daily wage of less than RM40, many of them are not able to earn the minimum wage of RM1,000.

“Apart from the struggle and great effort to earn a decent living wage in common with most other workers, women workers in plantations face other challenges which are more specific to their situation. Many women workers in the plantations are exposed to highly toxic chemicals when applying herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers.

“Plantation companies claim that the workers are provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) which should protect them from the worst effects of poisoning. The reality however is that the PPE provided is often unsuitable for the hot and humid Malaysian climate; the end result is that many women are still suffering from the worst consequences of exposure to chemicals.”

Tenaganita also noted that much of the women’s work involved lifting and carrying heavy loads such as chemicals and fertilisers, and repetitive bending and squatting which took a heavy toll on the body.

“Complaints of body aches and prolapsed wombs are frequent, but almost always dismissed as malingering, without giving due regard for their association with the workplace.”