Oil palm sector faces labour shortage, wants to engage more foreigners

The plantations and commodities sector, which includes palm, cocoa and rubber, employs 220,000 locals and 265,397 registered foreign workers but requires one million workers.

KUALA LUMPUR: Travel restrictions to prevent the spread of Covid-19 are causing labour shortages in palm plantations, officials said.

About 70% of its plantation workforce is made up of foreigners, mostly from Indonesia.

Recruitment, however, has stalled in recent months because of stay-at-home orders in Malaysia and other countries to prevent the disease spread.

The government said this week the country’s plantation industry, including oil palm estates, was short of 500,000 workers.

“We have not received new workers in the last three months,” Nageeb Wahab, chief executive of the Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA), said last week.

“Many workers have been repatriated or absconded during the lockdown. A lot of estates will be short of workers.”

MPOA, which represents big planters such as Sime Darby Plantations and FGV Holdings, wants the government to extend work permits for existing workers and speed up recruitment from countries such as Bangladesh.

However, Plantations and Commodities Minister Mohd Khairuddin Aman Razali has urged the companies to hire more local workers.

Plantations and Commodities Minister Mohd Khairuddin Aman Razali.

“If we talk about the introduction of new foreign workers in the sector, it will not happen in the near future because we have restricted their entry until further notice,” Khairuddin told Bernama TV on Wednesday.

“The current batch of foreign workers are those who have work permits. When their permits expire, they will be sent back to their respective countries. This is an opportunity for us to replace them with locals.”

He estimated the plantations and commodities sector, which includes palm, cocoa and rubber, currently employs 220,000 locals and 265,397 registered foreign workers but requires one million workers.

Palm plantations account for 18% of the country’s total agriculture area. Without sufficient labour, palm fruits could get spoiled.

“Previously, employers did not have the motivation to employ locals and locals were also not interested in 3D jobs,” Khairuddin said, using a local term for jobs that are dirty, dangerous or difficult.

“Now there is a need to employ locals.”

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