Insight - New 3Ds of plantations: dignified, disciplined, decent

Mechanised operations: A worker walks past palm oil fruit bunches ahead of sterilisation inside a mill at a palm oil estate in Gemas, Johor. Most of the operations in plantations are mechanised and are relatively easy to handle, with the exception probably of harvesting. — Bloomberg

THERE has been much hype of late about the commodity industry needing to offer jobs to Malaysians, who are affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, and move away from its heavy reliance on foreign workers.

Truly, some 80% of the workers are foreign and it is a sector shunned by Malaysians. Why?

As the country progressed, with new opportunities in the manufacturing, industrial and the tourism sector, more Malaysians preferred these kind of jobs. Light, easy and apparently dignified.

Plantations jobs are deemed to be dirty, difficult, dangerous and demeaning (the 4Ds). It is not about the money.

The current pandemic, however, has given a new meaning to employment. The much-sought-after jobs in the service, hospitality, industrial and manufacturing sectors have been severely impacted but the commodity sector remains intact, resilient and with a promising future.

Will Malaysians come back?

Fortunately, the commodity sector is allowed to operate without any stoppages and closure, and it is one of the few industries that does not retrench or cut wages and salaries thus far. The irony is, there is a still shortage of workers.

Borders are still closed and new recruitment of foreign workers have been frozen. The labour shortage is severe and the potential losses run into billions. Production has been seriously hampered to the tune of 20% to 30% of potential and Malaysia’s output of crude palm oil (CPO) could be much below that of last year.

The bullish prices experienced now could not be fully exploited and this is going to be a big loss to both the industry and the government.

This scenario is happening across the country, affecting all, especially the smallholders who are totally reliant on foreign workers.

With a large number of Malaysians losing jobs everyday, would they reconsider coming back and working in this sector?

Is this now the opportunity to entice Malaysians back to the estates and mills?

But how do we attract them?

It has always been perceived that working in this industry is not attractive and lowly-paid. It is a perception that needs to be corrected. First and foremost, if that really was the case, why would foreign workers come from far away to work here and stay for a period of time.

A lot more work needs to be done by the industry to court Malaysians.

Like never before, billboards have been erected at estates and mills, advertisements placed in media and intense engagement has been done with authorities to entice locals. Efforts have been made to reach out to Jakoa (Jabatan Kebajikan Orang Asli), Pemadam (Anti-Drug Agency) as well as the Prisons Department in the search for locals workers.

Response thus far have been lukewarm, but the Malaysian Palm Oil Association has not given up hope. It may even resort to pleading to the government for help.

Most Malaysians have never even visited plantations.

Their perceived views are based on hearsay. If they were to make an effort to experience life in the plantations, they would be surprised to see the quality of life there. Workers get decent houses, free electricity, water, recreational and sports facilities as well as social amenities.

Opportunities to earn good wages are always there for the hardworking and productive workers. Most of the operations are mechanised and are relatively easy to handle, with the exception probably of harvesting.

For the jobless Malaysians, this is an opportunity to give it a go and embrace a new lifestyle.

They could experience a dignified, disciplined and decent career in plantations, 3Ds that are far different from the perceived 4Ds.

Datuk Nageeb Wahab is the chief executive officer of Malaysian Palm Oil Association. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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