Food, Health and Freedom of Association in Palm Oil Plantations

by | Aug 6, 2021 | Focus

Photo: Women maintanance workers spread fertilizer on one plantation in North Sumatra. Credit; RAN/ OPPUK/ Nanang Sujana.

Report on Crisis in Palm Oil Plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia during the Covid-19 pandemic


It has been more than a year since the Covid-19 pandemic spread across the world. While the crisis has been contained in some regions, palm oil plantation workers in Indonesia and Malaysia have continued to suffer and have seen no meaningful improvements to their lives since before the pandemic began. At this very moment, plantation workers are still struggling to meet their basic needs: health protection, job and income security, and food and other essential needs.

The Covid-19 pandemic has blatantly revealed every kind of precarity experienced by plantation workers and their family members. The poor working conditions, which have been reported elsewhere, have been further degraded by the pandemic. The Covid-19, for example, has directly impacted workers with the increase of workload and decrease in income. The pandemic has also further increased the living cost which previously was already high, compared to the low income.

We, the Transnational Palm Oil Labour Solidarity Network (TPOLS), will not stop demanding national governments and transnational corporations to prioritize workers’ lives over profits by ensuring the maximum protection for workers and their family members, especially from the health and economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Together with palm oil plantation workers’ trade unions, we have continued to monitor and document the current conditions and hardships faced by the plantation workers during this global crisis. Through this exercise we have uncovered a number of alarming trends that require urgent action. 

The method of this report is based on primary data from the reports by the plantation trade union through an interview process. Trade union officials monitor and record reports submitted by their members spread across various plantations.

This report is a living document based on the development of the situation in the field and part of the previous network reports:

  1. Without workers the world will collapse
  2. Labour Rights Violation in the Global Supply Chain of the Palm Oil Industry
  3. The condition of deported Indonesian migrants during the period of Covid-19 from Sabah, Malaysia to Indonesia


Health protection: the community outbreak, poor health protocols and health services

The cases of infection in the plantation area appear to be less than in the urban settings and industrial zones. This is partly true given the workers live in remote and isolated areas, surrounded by hundreds to thousands of hectares of oil palm with limited mobility.

However, this isolation does not mean the plantation workers are safe from infection. To date, there are 24 workers in one plantation in Central Kalimantan who have been infected by Covid-19. Similarly, GSBI union members in one plantation in West Papua reported that 15 workers were infected. In other regions, one worker member of GSBI in one plantation in West Kalimantan was also reported to contract Covid-19.

In a plantation owned by Eagle High Plantation in East Kalimantan, three field workers (harvest and maintenance workers) were infected. Just recently, one migrant worker from NTT island who previously worked in the plantation owned by PT. Golden Frame (a supplier of FELCRA), in Sarawak, died after being treated for Covid-19 in a hospital in Pontianak city. Another instance of death from Covid-19 was also found in a plantation owned by Minamas Group in the same area.

The current pictures in the palm oil plantation are likely just the tip of the iceberg. The conditions in which plantation workers have difficulty accessing PCR tests and the company’s lack of disclosure raises concerns that the number of workers exposed is not known for certain. Dense labor settlements and the obligation to attend the morning assembly have the potential to make this virus spread more quickly.

In Malaysia, community outbreaks were reported in plantations owned by Sabah Softwood Berhad, FGV, and Kretam Holding in Sabah. The outbreak was reported to reach all over Sabah to plantations owned by LSP Premiere in Kinabatangan and Sandakan, and other plantations in Baturong, Kunak, Matamba and Lahad Datu region.

Living inside the plantations has increased workers’ risk of infection in addition to other ‘side effects’ of the pandemic. Plantations are known for their poor road infrastructure and access to different kinds of public services, mainly public health services. In the plantation context, the workers faced an extreme situation when the outbreak occurred. Although in some plantations, the company provides a health clinic, the provided services have never been adequate.

In East Kalimantan for example, the workers have to travel 2-3 hours to reach the nearest health facility, slowed down by poorly maintained roads. Compared to Java Island, health facilities in many places in Sumatra, Kalimantan and other major islands have much lower capacity and are unequipped to treat Covid-19 patients. 

Hospitals are collapsing, forcing those infected (or their family members) to treat themselves in home quarantine. Even if there are available beds in the hospitals, it can take up to one day for the workers to reach the hospital.

Meanwhile in Malaysia, the decades of discrimination towards ‘Penduduk Asing Tanpa Izin’ (a local derogatory term for undocumented migrants) has created a great barrier for migrants to access health treatment. Even before the pandemic, the national government applied higher costs for health treatment in the hospital for all foreigners. The inhumane treatment through immigration raids, deportation and torture have instilled a sense of terror among the undocumented migrants. 

As a result, the undocumented migrants, including their children, are largely excluded within the healthcare system in Malaysia. Th pervasive discrimination and brutal treatment of migrants also discourages them from reporting illness and seeking help from the local authority if they start to develop Covid-19 symptoms.

This extreme precarity has never actually been addressed by the plantation companies. In addition to failing to provide proper health facilities in the workplace, most of the companies have done nothing to effectively prevent outbreaks in the plantation.

In some plantations, trade union organizers reported regular body temperature checks and application of disinfectant to any vehicles entering the plantation. However, the companies are still requiring the workers to attend daily morning briefs which increases the risk of infections. To date, there has been no efforts by the company to spray disinfectants in and around workers’ compounds, as reported by the union organizers.

Most plantations in East Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan, South Sumatra and Malaysia, do not provide standard surgery masks which are recommended by the WHO, and other health equipment to prevent infection (e.g hand sanitizer). Surgery masks are a luxury for the plantation workers who cannot even afford to purchase nutritious food and barely meet their basic needs due to low income. 

This situation echoes the numerous stories about poor health and safety standards in the plantations dating back since long before the Covid-19 pandemic, including improper quality of personal protective equipment, including inadequate supply of the PPE.

The casual daily workers, of which the majority are women, are the most vulnerable group. If before the pandemic the health risk came from the exposures to hazardous chemicals (herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers), now the women casual workers are facing the added risk of Covid-19 infection. The women workers stand huddled together on the company truck as they go to work and return home. The company rarely implements sufficient safety standards and regular protective equipment, including the respiratory mask. 

The government should put pressure on the company to provide any necessary means to prevent the spread of Covid-19 infection and ensure the health of the women workers regardless of their employment status. 


‘No work no pay’: job insecurity and poverty-level wages

Almost all plantation companies employ significant numbers of casual daily workers, exceeding the number of permanent workers. Many companies also apply wage payment mechanisms based on the piece rate or daily wages.

Those who are employed as casual workers paid by piece rates or daily wages are mostly field workers. They are the harvest workers, maintenance workers (fertilizer applicator and herbicide sprayer), fruitlets collectors, and other types of field workers. The field workers also tend to be recruited by private labour agencies. The casualisation and precaritization has been deepened as permanent workers have increasingly been replaced with contractual and casual workers.

This phenomenon of increasing informalization and outsourcing, serves the companies by enabling them to shirk responsibility to the workers whose terms of employment are under the private labour agencies. The recruited casual daily workers also allow the companies to reduce the labour costs by suppressing workers’ wages and other benefits.

According to one Serikat Pekerja Nasional union organizer in East Kalimantan, some plantations owned by PP London Sumatera and Eagle High Plantation are reducing working days for casual workers from 25 days/ month to 12-15 days. As the working days have decreased, the workers earn less given they are paid only when they are given work orders.

In South Sumatra, plantation workers in PT. Agro Kati Lama, a subsidiary of SIPEF Group, have not seen any improvements to their working conditions. Since the plantation began operating in 2011, thousands of local residents have been employed casually with an average income of IDR 1.4 million (USD 96)—not even half of the statutory minimum wages of IDR 3.1 million in Musi Rawas regency. 

According to one SBSS union organizer, in the past two months there have been 12 permanent workers above the age of 40 laid off and replaced with younger workers (who mostly are still family members of the respective workers) under contractual and casual employment terms.

Similar conditions are also faced by workers in a plantation owned by Sinar Mas in Central Kalimantan who are employing more casual workers while dismissing contract workers. In the same region, a plantation owned by Wilmar is reported to employ casual workers for years which exceeds the legal restrictions.

In other places in Central Kalimantan, some workers are experiencing an increased workload due to the downsizing of the labour force by the company. This situation is reported to be occurring in a plantation owned by Sinar Mas. The harvest workers are required to cover 4-5 hectares in a day, from only 2-3 hectares prior to the pandemic. As the workload increases, the workers have to spend longer hours to reach the harvesting target up to 11-12 hours a day.

While the grim nature of working conditions on the plantations has been reported many times before the pandemic, the current situation is much worse. As will be explained below, this is mainly attributed to the nationwide restriction mobility policy applied by both the central government and the company has never really considered the lives of plantation workers in an isolated area.


Mobility restriction: the problem of food supply and children’s education

In many palm oil plantations in East Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan, the workers are facing difficulties in purchasing affordable food supply. The mobility restriction has hindered workers from going to the local market outside the plantation. The workers are left with only one option: to buy the higher priced food and other essential items in the grocery store, either owned or arranged by the company.

For example, the price of sugar in the company store has increased from IDR 15.000 to IDR 22.000-25.000. Given the low income, it is not uncommon to find workers to owe debt to the company’s grocery store. In some cases, this has appeared to be a debt-bondage like situation.

Instead of ensuring an affordable and nutritious food supply, the company fired workers with the accusation that they were violating health protocols because they chose to seek more affordable food outside the plantation. There are 14 workers in one of Wilmar’s plantations who were fired for this reason just because they went outside to go to the local market. In a different company, 7 workers were fired simply because they were not wearing the face mask— even though the company does not provide masks to workers.

Even if in some other plantations the company allows the workers to travel outside, the workers are required to provide the result of the PCR test with their own money when they return. Such a policy is unreasonable given the PCR test will cost at least IDR 900.000, while the average income is only IDR 1.400.000. Thus, workers are coerced into remaining trapped inside the plantation with restricted access to basic essentials.

The problem of food supply impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic is also experienced by the local community. Due to the restriction of mobility, the majority of women peasants in Kampar in Riau have no alternative to meet their basic needs. Not only have they been deprived of their land due to the land conflict with the company owned by Sinar Mas, the women peasants also have no other means to grow their crops as the fertility of the soil has been stripped due to palm oil plantations.

With regard to the education of children of palm oil plantation workers, the restriction of mobility which has stopped school activity has increased the burden of women workers as they have to ensure their children can still attend online school. 

Attending online school teaching requires good internet access, which is not something that can be easily obtained by the children of plantation workers due to the poor internet infrastructure, the availability of smartphones and the internet service itself. 


Attacks on Freedom of Association

One of the ways in which transnational corporations are benefiting from the pandemic, among others, is by limiting freedom of association both directly or indirectly. In East Kalimantan, the plantation company decided to dismiss and forcefully expel the workers and their families from their homes in the plantation following the workers’ participation in a protest against the draft of Omnibus Bill. The workers were accused of spreading Covid-19. Such action by the company was a clear case of union busting, considering the company has a great interest in the implementation of the bill.

As an impact of the mobility restriction imposed by the company, union organizers are not allowed to provide services to help their union members and negotiate with the company to ensure the fulfillment of workers’ rights.

The labour minister had twice issued a Circular Letter with regards to the annual religious allowance payment in 2020 and 2021. This Letter has become a tool for the company to avoid their responsibility in paying the allowance. 

The letter issued by the labour minister requires the company to negotiate with the workers regarding the allowance payment. However, in reality this had never actually occurred. The unions have no real chance to demand bargaining negotiation given the lack of access to the plantation. Workers are not represented when company decisions are determined without consulting the workers.

The Covid-19 pandemic has not stopped the companies from their attacks on freedom of association. This was experienced by the chairperson and the secretary of GSBI union and Hukatan-KSSBI union in Bengkayang regency in West Kalimantan. The company reported to the police that the union members and organizers on the accusation of doing ‘provocation’. This accusation emerged following the protest action organized by the union.

During these difficult times, trade unions have been facing difficulties in settling labour disputes among their members. The process of dispute settlement in the Labour Court, as experienced by SPN members in PT. Citra Agro Kencana has been long postponed following the restriction mobility policy. 

The workers who are in dispute with the company and have no place to go, had once settled at the office of the local Department of Labour, but only to be asked to leave by the local officer. The local officer told the workers to leave as they were considered to be disturbing the public service.


Companies amass profits from the hardship of the workers

When it comes to companies’ responsibilities towards workers, they often claim ‘financial loss’ as their excuse for not meeting the workers’ demands. This very excuse has always been used by the company to continue reducing permanent workers and contractual workers, while at the same time recruiting more casual daily workers.

The palm oil industry has barely been impacted by the pandemic. Instead, palm oil has been reported in an official source to be the most resilient industry amidst the pandemic, as it was during the 1998 and 2008 financial crises.

During the first global wave of the Covid-19 pandemic during January to June last year, the palm oil industry in Indonesia was also reported to record a surplus in the trade balance in the amount of USD 5,48 billion. In the same report, the Crude Palm Oil (CPO) export also contributed IDR 147 trillion (USD 10,06 billion) in foreign exchange, an increase of IDR 47 million from 2019.

In the last 5 years, the palm oil industry has been enjoying the positive trend of export volume of CPO and its derivatives. In the past year, the price of CPO in the global market was instead increased and had once reached USD 1.000 per ton in May 2021.

While the companies tend to neglect effective measures to contain the spread of Covid-19 at the workplace, a subsidiary of Sinar Mas in East Kalimantan, like other companies in different areas, was reported by the union organizer to disburse corporate social responsibility aid to the local village to provide medical masks and other health facilities.

The mobility restriction policy has been deliberately used to limit union activity. While the union organizers are not allowed to meet with their members, this policy is not implemented when it comes to the interest of the corporation, as the management is allowed to move in and out of the plantation freely.

Both in Indonesia and Malaysia, the companies are still recruiting the new batch of workers. In the past 1.5 years, the cross-border flow of workers (both domestic and international) has been uninterrupted. According to one SPN union organizer, the labour recruitment process does not comply with health protocols. 

The flow of industry-driven unprocedural migration in the border areas of Indonesia and Malaysia in Nunukan seemed to be unaffected by the national policy of restricted mobility, given there are still people crossing the borders. While at the same time, the national government targeted the undocumented migrants, treating them  as vectors of disease.

The Covid-19 pandemic is also being used by national governments to pass new laws on employment which are in favor of the interest of corporations. In Indonesia, while the national government was slow to act on responding to the pandemic and allocating resources to contain the spread, the Omnibus Bill was passed. In Malaysia, the national government continues to postpone the deliberation on the labour law reform that has been proposed by the coalition of trade unions and civil society.

We, who endorse this statement, cannot allow the difficulties experienced by the plantation workers and their families to continue. We urge the national governments of Indonesia and Malaysia and transnational corporations to act by ensuring the maximum protection of the workers and their families from the health risk and other impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

We urge the national governments of Indonesia and Malaysia,

  1. To effectively ensure universal health care for all workers and their families regardless of citizenship, class, ethnicity and race.
    1. The national governments should ensure free and acceptable mass testing and vaccination for all workers and their families
    2. The national governments should allocate more resources to support public healthcare and medical workers based on the universal human rights principle.
  2. To allocate and prioritize the state budget to ensure the maximum health care and protection, such as by cutting the salaries and benefits of state officials, and increase revenue by taxing the rich and corporations.
  3. To annall bills which are anti-working people and in favour of corporate interests, such the Omnibus Bill in Indonesia and Health Circular in Malaysia
  4. The Malaysian government must stop all the raids against undocumented migrants and inhumane treatment in the Temporary Detention Center. The Indonesian government must ensure the deportation process does not violate any basic human rights.
  5. To ensure the fulfillment of basic needs, especially foods, medicines, income support and children’s education free and universal until the pandemic has relieved.
  6. The national governments must stop repression and criminalization of the dissidents, activists, and people’s movement when containing the pandemic. The national governments should ensure meaningful public participation in designing and implementing the effective urgent policy.


We also urge the transnational corporations,

  1. To ensure the highest level of implementation of necessary actions to protect workers in their global supply chain, including subsidiaries and third-party suppliers.
  2. To ensure the fulfillment of workers’ rights during and after the pandemic. The fulfillment of rights must be based on the highest standards of human rights and above the national law.
  3. To ensure the provision of nutritious and affordable food needs for all workers and their families, including local communities, including vitamins, fruits and clean water.
  4. To provide health facilities and equipment, including standard medical masks and access to health care properly and accessible during and after the pandemic.
  5. The companies must monitor the health conditions of all workers and their families by facilitating and covering the cost of PCR tests regardless of the results.
  6. The companies must cover all the living expenses, especially for workers and their families who are infected by Covid, during their self-quarantine or in instances of death.
  7. The companies must arrange free vaccinations for all workers and their families, including education about the importance of vaccination in cooperation with the local authorities.


August 6th, 2021

Transnational Palm Oil Labor Solidarity (TPOLS) is a cross-organizational collaboration network that is concerned with the issue of the sustainability of the palm oil industry. The TPOLS network consists of labor union organizations, environmental justice groups, women’s organizations, labour and human rights defenders, migrant worker groups, and scholars.

Contact us: [email protected]

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