Protect Palm Oil Plantation Workers from Threat of COVID-19

by | Aug 8, 2021 | Solidarity

Picture: palm oil harvesters cutting down fruit bunch. Credit: RAN/OPPUK/Nanang Sujana,

Press Release

Jakarta, August 8th 2021, Transnational Palm Oil Labour Solidarity (TPOLS) Transnational Palm Oil Labour Solidarity sees that labor conditions have worsened among workers in palm oil plantations during the Covid-19 pandemic. “During the pandemic, workers in palm oil plantations are struggling to attain three things: health protection, a guarantee of income and employment, and access to their basic needs. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the vulnerability experienced by workers in palm oil plantations,” said Rizal Assalam, coordinator of TPOLS network

Zidane from Sawit Watch stated that the isolating situation of palm oil plantations did not necessarily eliminate the potential risks of workers contracting COVID-19. “In 2020, for instance, dozens of workers were infected by the virus. In July 2021, we received reports that a number of plantation workers in Kalimantan and Papua were also infected by the virus. In total, more than 150 cases of infection have been reported among workers,” he said.

Although the cases in these plantations do not seem to outnumber the cases in the cities, the actual conditions are likely much worse. “We are concerned that the reported number is just the tip of an iceberg. As many workers do not have access to PCR testing and adequate personal protection equipment (PPE), in addition to the lack of company transparency, we are concerned that the exact number of infections is difficult to ascertain,” Zidane added.

It is known that palm oil plantations in East Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan, and South Sumatra often fail to provide medical masks (with standards recommended by the WHO) and PPE to their workers to protect themselves from virus transmission. “This situation repeats the nightmare of occupational safety and health standards in palm oil plantations, especially PPE, which is rarely provided and is often not appropriate for the risks in the workplace,” said Ismet Inoni of GSBI.

Ismet further added, “Although palm oil workers do their tasks in moderate distance from each other, it is not an acceptable excuse for the company to be negligent of their responsibility to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission. These companies are under the obligation to protect their workers’ health and safety in any circumstances.”

Dianto Arifin of SEPASI stated that during the COVID-19 pandemic, workers have been struggling to afford their basic needs. “Mobility restrictions imposed by the company made it difficult for workers to buy household necessities at low prices outside the plantation area. This situation drove the workers to buy necessities inside the plantation area at much higher prices,” said Dianto Arifin.

In many cases, the densely packed workers’ settlements and the obligation to attend the morning assembly could escalate virus transmission. “To make it worse, for a long time poor infrastructure and public facility access have made it difficult for workers in palm oil plantations and their families to access healthcare services, let alone during this pandemic situation,” said Kornelis W.G, a trade union officer of the Serikat Pekerja Nasional of East Kalimantan region.

Women workers are the most vulnerable group. According to Kornelis, “Casual daily workers, mostly women, are the most vulnerable ones. These women commute to and from work everyday, squeezed and huddled on a crowded truck without adequate PPE.”

In Sabah, Malaysia, cases of COVID-19 infection were found in a plantation owned by Sabah Softwood Berhad, FGV, and Kretam Holding, a plantation owned by LSP Premiere on Kinabatangan and Sandakan. Other cases were also found among plantations in the area of Baturong, Kunak, Matamba and Lahad Datu.

“The discriminatory policy towards ‘Penduduk Asing Tanpa Izin’, a local derogatory term for undocumented migrants, has prevented migrant workers from accessing health services and care facilities. The Malaysian government has long implemented a policy of higher healthcare costs for foreign residents,” said Suryani from Koalisi Buruh Migran Berdaulat (Sovereign Migrant Workers Coalition).

The coalition also monitored and investigated the undocumented migrant workers’ deportation issue. The monitoring results described accounts of the ill-treatments and fear experienced by migrant workers. 

“Inhumane treatment by raids, arrests, and torture of undocumented migrant workers have fostered great fear among migrant workers. As a result, irregular migrant workers, including migrant children, tend to be excluded from the Malaysian health system. Migrant workers are also discouraged from reporting and seeking help from local authorities if they experience symptoms of Covid-19,” Suryani added.

TPOLS sees that governments have instead used the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to change and pass laws that serve the interests of business owners. “In Indonesia, when the government is supposedly devoting themselves to fight the pandemic, the Omnibus Law on Job Creation was conveniently enacted. Meanwhile in Malaysia, the government continues to deter and delay labor regulation reforms proposed by trade unions and civil coalitions. It’s ironic at its best,” said Rizal Assalam.

TPOLS considers that the adverse situation faced by workers in oil palm plantations and their families cannot be tolerated. “We urge the national government and companies to seriously ensure the protection of migrant workers and their families from the health and economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Rizal

He added, “in particular, we demand the Malaysian government to stop all operations to arrest migrant workers and conduct inhumane treatment during the detention process at the Temporary Detention Center. The Indonesian government must ensure that the process of repatriating migrant workers and their families does not violate the slightest degree of humanity.” 

Transnational Palm Oil Labor Solidarity (TPOLS) is a cross-organizational cooperation network focused on the sustainability of the palm oil industry issue. The TPOLS network consists of trade union organizations, environmental justice groups, women’s organizations, human rights and labor defenders, migrant workers groups, and academic groups.


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