In Cameron Highlands, business depends on foreign workers

Foreign workers seen at a farm in Cameron Highlands.

CAMERON HIGHLANDS: Foreign workers are a common sight in Cameron Highlands, where farms and tea plantations often rely heavily on them for labour.

Business owners in the tourist hotspot say the demand for these workers is high as locals, including the Orang Asli, are not keen on such jobs.

Businessman P Kanathazan told FMT that locals often give excuses when offered positions in these industries.

“Some only want ‘classy’ jobs. Who wants to wash dishes? If you ask the locals, they definitely won’t do it.

Businessman P Kanathazan.

“To be a fisherman is tough – they won’t want to do it. To work in tea plantations? No Malaysian would want to work in tea plantations,” he said.

According to him, the bulk of locals only want to be “the boss”.

“I am sorry to say this, but our children today are too spoilt and cannot take any hardship. In Cameron Highlands, if we don’t have foreign workers, the place will not advance,” he said, adding that this was especially the case in the tourism and agriculture industries.

Kanathazan estimates that there are between five and seven thousand foreign workers in Cameron Highlands, mostly Indonesians, Bangladeshis and Nepalese.

“The wages for jobs such as tea plantation workers range between RM1,300 and RM1,500,” he said.

“In the service and food sectors, they take workers for RM1,500 while construction workers are paid RM1,500 to RM1,800.”

This is the salary scale offered to locals as well, he said. The problem is, many of them are unwilling to work for that amount.

A farm operator told FMT that in his opinion, the Cameron Highlands Orang Asli are choosy and it is difficult to get them to work on farms.

“They want easy jobs, such as working in hotels,” he said. “They want clean and comfortable jobs such as housekeeping.

“They don’t even go into the jungle much these days to harvest forest produce.”

Foreign workers at a construction site in Cameron Highlands.

However, a farmer in the Bertam Valley who called himself Wong said it was unfair to accuse the Orang Asli of only looking for comfortable jobs.

“They have the right to look for comfortable jobs because rightfully, Cameron Highlands land belongs to them. We are the ones encroaching on their land.”

He urged the state government to solve the problems faced by the Orang Asli once and for all, voicing hope that things would improve after that.

He told of his own experience in hiring Orang Asli workers which had mixed results.

“I tried helping one of the villages once. The agreement was that they would come in groups of 10 to work on my farm.

“I sent a driver to pick them up from their village as they did not have transport. But one day, I think someone passed away in the village and all 10 of them did not turn up for work.”

He attributed such experiences to a difference in culture, saying the Orang Asli might not be used to working permanent jobs.

“We have to encourage them stage by stage,” he said, adding that he intends to launch an initiative where Orang Asli are sent for training in return for their work for local farmers.

Wong also plans to petition the state government and agencies to assist in such training to encourage the Orang Asli to work on farms.

“But I can’t do it on my own,” he added. “Manpower is needed to train them.”

Bah Long Siang, the Sungai Ruil Orang Asli representative, also refuted claims that the community was “picky” about jobs.

“A lot of Orang Asli work on farms, but lately farm owners have been taking in a lot of foreign workers.”

He said farm owners preferred foreign workers over locals as they were willing to work for longer hours.

“They cannot refuse because they are tied to a permit,” he added.

He also said many Orang Asli were reluctant to work as their salaries were not always paid on time.

“Some employers also opt to hire foreign workers because their wages are lower,” he said.

However, businessman Kanathazan said employers still had trouble applying for documentation for foreign workers due to tight government regulations.

Because each application takes a long time, he said, employers often resort to hiring undocumented workers.

“If the new government does not address this problem, sectors such as farming and even hotels will opt for undocumented workers,” he said.

“If the new government does not address this problem, sectors such as farming and even hotels, these businesses will opt for undocumented workers,” said Kanathazan.