Rubber plantation workers all tapped out

Mohamad Jantan, 67, says life is tougher for rubber tappers these days.

ALOR GAJAH: Mohamad Jantan closes his eyes for a moment as he mentally focuses on his earliest times in the Melaka rubber estate where his father worked.

“I used to follow my dad when he was tapping. I can still remember walking around under the big trees,” Mohamad tells FMT. ”I was only around six years old, back then.”

He helped his father collect rubber latex nearly every day until he turned 14 and was deemed old enough to get his own job.

“As I got older, I felt sad looking at how hard my father had to work.”

Even so, Mohamad went to work in a rubber estate, joining thousands of other tappers in one of colonial Malaya’s most vital industries.

The rubber industry traces its roots to the planting of the first seedling in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, in 1877. Soon it became a great money spinner for Malaya.

When Mohamad began working, the wages he earned were enough to support a family.

“In those days, things were cheap, and you didn’t have to buy everything you needed to feed your family. Vegetables, mushrooms and so on, you could find them yourself. Nowadays, you have to buy everything, and it’s not cheap.”

Post-independence, rubber production declined as demand for synthetic rubber grew.

“Life was tough in the past, but it was easy to put food on the table, now it’s not,” sighs Mohamad, now 67.

Mohamad Jantan leaves his home to go and tap rubber.

“If we tap rubber on a one-acre estate, we can earn RM20 and that’s before sharing half with the landowner. What can we buy with RM10?”

This meagre take-home money is why he now has to work additional part-time jobs, even in the evenings, just to eke out a living.

“I chop down trees, make machetes, and do home repairs among other things. I can earn around RM30 per day doing these jobs,” he says.

He tells us that his fellow tappers also have part-time jobs. In fact, he says, such odd jobs are now their primary source of income, with rubber tapping serving as more of a side occupation.

Mohamad wishes the government would promote rubber more in order to boost prices.

He also feels aid initiatives would help all the rubber tappers suffering like him.

Mohamad Jantan began tapping rubber when he was 14-years-old.

In the past, the rubber industry was a huge employer, but now palm oil is more popular even though tapping rubber is easier and less complex, he remarks with regret.

“I really hope the price of rubber will go up, then villagers like me can feel some relief. The government provides BR1M (the old name for government cash aid), which helps us a bit.

“Without that, I would have to work all day and all night even though I am now old and sick.”

Is Mohamad being realistic to hope that the rubber industry will bounce back?

Maybe not, but for old and frail workers who gave their working lives to the latex, it seems like that is the only hope they have left.