Palm oil workers during covid-19 pandemic in Indonesia and Malaysia

by | May 14, 2020 | Uncategorized


Online discussion to celebrate Labour Day 2020

“Workers in palm oil plantations during covid-19 pandemic”

 May 2020

Moderator: Rambo
1.     Inda Fatinaware (Sawit Watch)
2.     Herwin Nasution (SERBUNDO palm oil worker union)
3.     Anies Hidayah (Migrant Care)
4.     Abu Mufakhir (Asia Monitor Resource Centre/Transnational Palm Oil Labour Solidarity)
5.     Zidane (Sawit Watch)
Inda Fatinaware:
       There are more than 22 million hectares of land across Indonesia are used for palm oil plantation. 
       Regulations are being produced to respond pressures from civil society, such as recent Presidential Decree No 44/2020 on sustainability certification. However, many are doubtful about such regulation. Labour rights are among the most neglected elements in the regulation. 
       Sawit Watch has been advocating labour rights in palm oil in the past five years, but there is very little has been achieved. 
       Labour law is more regulating manufacturing sectors and less in agriculture, let alone in the palm oil. Thus, we need a specific regulation for the rights of workers in the palm oil industry, given the scale and the significant that it makes.
Herwin Nasution:
       State has been negligent of labour in the palm oil sector, despite the important of palm oil for Indonesian economy.  
       During covid-19 pandemic, there has not been any preventive acts by companies. Most companies are not paying attention to the national government instruction to take preventive measures. Many are (in Sumatra and Kalimantan) running their business as usual amid covid-19.
       Even a large company under London-Sumatra group (Lonsum) and Indofood group, recently retrenched its 570 workers, including the union leaders. The dismissal was said because of economic situation. 
       There are palm oil companies whose active giving donation in Jakarta and advertised on their social responsibility, yet they ignored workers’ demand for basic rights in the plantations.
       Workers in palm oil plantation mostly use their muscles manually for works, exposed different work hazards. If we calculate the wages based on calorie needed for labouring in palm oil, they must have received higher wages than any other manufacture workers.  
       Labour law is unfavourable for workers in general, and even more for palm oil workers.
       The number of daily workers in palm oil industry in Indonesia is huge, more than 65 percent of the total workers. 
Anies Hidayah:
       Malaysia implements nation-wide lockdown during covid-19 pandemic, which impacted the migrants’ daily workers who receive wages only when they work. Most of these migrants could not survive during lockdown.
       Indonesian migrant workers in Malaysia are the backbone of Malaysian economy. Millions of workers have flocked in many sectors, including agriculture, domestic work, construction, manufacture, retail, and informal.
       Food shortages among migrants is serious, we have to keep on eye and provide assistances.
Abu Mufakhir:
       Sabah, Malaysia is one of key palm oil producers for Malaysian economy thanks to millions of migrant workers from Indonesia. 
       Sabah has 1.5 million hectare (2018) which accounted 26.5 percent of total use of land for palm oil nationally. Sabah annual production of palm oil is 5.14 million tone of CPO.
       Looking at the land being used for palm oil in Sabah, total workers would be about one million. The official figure is less than this estimation since it is only counting the documented workers. 
       Majority of workers are from Indonesia (90 percent), and the rest are from other countries including the Philippines.
       70 percent of migrant workers in Sabah are undocumented. 
       Since the MCO (movement control order) in early March, many palm oil plantations are not operating. Many workers are not receiving wages on the period they dd not work.
       Many workers are locked in plantation estates, they do not have enough food to survive, thus rely on food distribution and donation. Weekly market and circular traders to estates are also stopped. 
       Covid-19 has also impacted the deportation activity of migrants who’s supposed to be returned to Indonesia, some of whom are women and children. At the moment, there are around 600 detainees from Indonesia.
What can we do? 
       Solidarity with the migrant workers in palm oil by providing basic necessities. We extended our solidarity, together with a task force and Transnational Palm Oil Labour Solidarity, we distributed 1000 packages of food to the migrants in Sabah. 
       We should monitor the Indonesian Consulate in Sabah to distribute the food assistances, as they act slower than we expected. 
       We pressure the company to implement OSH and covid-19 procedures.
       We demand Federal Government of Malaysia and Sabah state government to be responsible to migrant workers as they contributed to the country’s economy. 
       We have reached out workers in plantation areas in Sumatra and Kalimantan and asked them about the situation. They testify the situation is normal, as if there is nothing happen in the world and nothing such covid-19. All work activity runs as usual, both in plantation and mills. 
       There is no PPE and specific protection to prevent covid-19 infection. 
       As we investigated, some palm oil companies have issued protocol preventing the covid-19, but mostly on paper and hardly implemented. 
       What workers worry most is massive dismissal by the company, using covid-19 as a cover.  
       Workers reported that their companies have planned to pay annual bonus for Idul Fitri festival in instalment, some others will be paid only in December. 
       Daily workers are the most vulnerable and most impacted by covid-19, as the moment is used for reduction of their rights. 
Q & A
       Labouring in palm oil industry clearly is a modern slavery.  During covid-19, workers are still asked to come to work, putting them in a great risk of infection, especially during gathering with co-workers before and during work. 
       Food shortages is getting worse. Plantation estates are locked, but the management is not giving any solution either. 
       There are more than 2500 companies in palm oil sector in Indonesia, but only several bosses who control the whole industry. 
       Indonesian government and consulates in Malaysia are more reactive rather than pro-active. They only act when there is a complaint. Many Indonesian migrants are in difficult situation in Malaysia in this time. 
       We should do campaign strategically. Brands and buyers should also be targeted as they take the most profit. They should be held accountable too. International solidarity is even more necessary. 
       Human trafficking and human rights violations are common practice in palm oil industry. 
       Several labour unions have demanded the companies to respond covid-19, but only few have positive response.  
       We need to have a quick response’ strategy to provide foods and legal assistance for marginalised workers. 
       We have to make sure personal protective equipment (PPE) and preventive measures of covid-19 are provided by managements. 
       We should advocate the daily workers; they are the most vulnerable during this time. They are not given any PPE. 


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