SOMETIMES I admire Land Development Minister Tan Sri James Masing for his outspoken views and his attack on extremists.
However, I have to disagree with him on the issue of oil palm plantations and foreign workers.
Let me get this fact across first. I have nothing against foreign workers. As a trade unionist, I believe all workers, whatever their nationality, must be treated with respect and dignity.
The second fact is that every country must give priority to locals when it comes to employment opportunities.
Our nation’s businesses exist to provide decent jobs with decent pay for its citizens so they can afford to pay for consumption that will in turn drive demand for business products and services.
It makes no sense to me, therefore, for Masing to propose creating a system for Indonesian workers to commute to work in oil palm plantations near the border on a daily or weekly basis. He claimed that this way we can regulate and control their entry.
This is wishful thinking, giving our patchy enforcement record.
This view is also in stark contract to the concerns expressed by Deputy Home Minister Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar who revealed that the porous border due to the breaching of buffer zones between Sarawak and Kalimantan by oil palm plantations is one reason why there are some 300,000 illegal foreign workers in the state.
According to Junaidi, the so-called “jalan tikus” has become “jalan gajah”. There are at least 400,000 Indonesian workers in Sarawak, according to the Indonesian Consul-General in Kuching.
I have asked this before and I will ask it again. What is the point of turning so much of our primary forest into oil palm plantations only to provide jobs to foreigners? They do not spend their salaries here, so local businesses suffer.
Still on facts, I have to dispute Masing’s fact that local workers will not work in plantations because regimentation work is something they are not familiar with.
Please remember that not too long ago, our local Hakkas and Dayaks formed the backbone of our construction industry. I used to work in a construction site during my school days.
Yet the construction industry also claims that they need foreign workers from as far away as North Korea because locals don’t like dirty, demeaning and dangerous construction jobs.
The reason is simple: employers are paying way below productivity levels. I have asked for a full disclosure on the terms and benefits offered to locals. So far none has been forthcoming.
To me an attractive wage for locals to work in plantations should be the minimum wage of RM800 plus RM375 (equal to the cost of bringing in foreign workers that employers have to pay), as well as decent housing and transport.
Oil palm plantations must also pay productivity-linked incentives based on worker output and oil palm prices. Local workers must be provided a guaranteed minimum 26 working days a month in accordance with the Sarawak Labour Ordinance.
That would mean that the income of the workers would be at least RM1,300 to RM1,500 a month.
If a company cannot even provide a decent living wage to its workers - one that is enough to meet their basic needs - it has no business being in business.
Even Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem says one of the reasons locals do not work in the oil palm industry is the low pay.
“Employers are not prepared to pay them well. They prefer to be dependent on cheap labour. I think this is one policy we have to amend and change one of these days,” he said during an interview with Astro Awani broadcast last Friday.
Adenan said the state government would work towards amending policies to improve local workforce participation in the plantation sector.
“But eventually we must design a policy that will favour local labour – at least (increase) to 30% or 40% (of the sector’s workforce) and pay them well,” he added.
I would like to remind that under the Malaysia Agreement, Sarawak has autonomy over labour issues.
We have our own Sarawak Labour Ordinance instead of the Employment Act.
West Malaysians need a work permit with stringent requirements.
Our founding fathers recognised the need to protect Sarawak workers and their jobs from being taken over by west Malaysians.
It is an insult that we instead allow our jobs to be taken over by 400,000 foreigners who are not even Malaysians.
I have not counted the huge environment, security and social costs of having so many foreign workers.
Health experts have warned that Malaysia is facing a huge increase in TB cases caused largely by foreign workers.
So it is the government, taxpayers and local workers who pay for the costs of so many foreign workers, while employers are laughing all the way to the bank.