Summary of Discussion
The discussion on “The condition of palm oil workers amidst Covid-19 pandemic” was held virtually on 26 July 2020. The discussion was attended by organization members of TPOLS network. This activity aims to obtain detailed information on the conditions currently experienced by workers in palm oil plantations in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. This activity is also intended as a means of network consolidation in which TPOLS network members can interact and exchange ideas.
This discussion generally highlights the working conditions on palm oil plantations and how the Covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the vulnerabilities that the workers have faced before the pandemic. The participants in three countries also highlighted the weak protection of plantation workers from health and economic risks arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, both from the company side and the respective national government.
The existing conditions in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, plantation workers are in uncertain condition with no job security and protection. Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, workers who are generally employed on a temporary-contractual basis experienced a decrease in income by half.
This was especially the case when the plantations stopped operating temporarily for 2-4 weeks during the first outbreak of the pandemic in between March-April. During that period, workers are not given jobs by their employers. Because workers are employed on a daily basis or with a no work no pay system, workers do not have income to meet their basic needs.
The temporary stoppage of production is due to the social restriction policy issued by the national governments of the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. This restriction is intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. This policy is said to be followed by the implementation of health safety protocols, such as physical distancing, monitoring and health checks, and the provision of personal protective equipment, including face masks.
However, participants from the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia reported that plantation companies do not actually implement health safety protocols. Only a small proportion of plantations monitored the health conditions of workers or sprayed disinfectants in workers’ housing areas.
In the context of Malaysia, workers who were temporarily laid-off during the production stoppage did not receive any financial assistance, neither from the company or the government—the only exception was Sime Darby’s plantation. This condition had worsened to the point where there was a problem of hunger and scarcity of food in several plantations.
In general, the most striking conditions on many plantations are ‘normal’ routines on the plantation. Workers do their regular task normally without any reduction in working hours or workloads—when the production has continued after the temporary stoppage. Maintenance workers (fertilizers applicator or chemical sprayer) rarely receive respiratory masks, both in the conditions before and during the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, the risk of coronavirus infection and the health and economic impacts of plantation workers can still be observed. In the context of Sabah, many plantation workers in the Tawau area owned by Sabah Softwood company were reported to be infected by Covid-19. Reports of infection also occurred on Lonsum’s plantation in East Kotawaringin in Indonesia.
Unfortunately, not much information is known about the spread of the pandemic in plantation areas. This is due to limited access to plantation areas and the geographical location of plantations, most of which are in remote and isolated areas.
On the other hand, Covid-19 has made companies tighten up their controlof access at plantation entrance gate. This makes it even more difficult to get information on the workers’ conditions from inside plantation. In addition, efforts to deliver some supports from unions and supporting organizations, such as that experienced by the SPN union in Indonesia and the SPIEU union and SFPA in Sabah into the plantation area, are increasingly limited.
The restriction policy manifested in the form of restriction access to the plantation area have also disrupted workers’ access to meeting daily needs. This policy manifestation also disrupts logistics channels, causing the scarcity and the price increase of basic necessities. In one case in East Kalimantan, the company supplied the workers basic needs, but with a cut in wages.
This policy restrictions have a more extreme impact in the Malaysia context. Due to the closure of the border area with tighter controls, many migrant workers who are on their way to Sabah from their hometowns, such as those from NTT and South Sulawesi, are stranded in several transit areas such at the port of Pare-Pare in South Sulawesi.
In the situation where palm oil plantations in Malaysia are highly dependent on the migrant workers, the closure of this border area has disrupted the labor recruitment. In some plantations, the company recruits workers who have exceeded the 10 years maximum period of work permit. Based on the foreign workers policy in Malaysia, plantation migrant workers are only allowed to stay and work for a maximum of 10 years and must return to their hometowns.
This recruitment practice is known and allowed by the Malaysian authorities through the Labor Agency. Although this might be a solution that benefits both parties, where companies need labor, and workers need jobs, this recruitment practice has the potential to raise document legality problems in the future.
At the same time, the restriction policy and closure of borders have not stopped the raids and arrests of undocumented migrant workers in Sabah,as well as migrants who passing through unofficial route. This resulted in the worsening of the deportation process which took longer due to restrictions on border crossings. The long process of deportation has resulted in a buildup of deportees at the Temporary Detention Center in Sabah, leading to overcapacity problems.
On the other hand, the local government in Indonesia did not really prepare for the arrival of deportees. The quarantine area for deportees, for example in Pare-Pare, has exceeded capacity. The health checks for deportees were also inadequate, while at the same time deportees were stigmatized as carriers of the virus. There are currently 4,000 deportants arriving in NTT, with 219 of them known to be infected with Covid-19.
The deportation incident observed by the Solidaritas Perempuan Anging Mamiri together with the Koalisi Buruh Migran Berdaulat also revealed the inhuman treatment experienced by deportees in the Temporary Detention Center. Based on the stories that were collected, the deportees were subjected to physical and psychological torture while detained in the Temporary Detention Center. In addition, facilities for hygiene, health and basic necessities are very inadequate. Not a few deportants suffered from illness while in the detention room.
In summary, Covid-19 has deepened the vulnerabilities that palm oil plantation workers have been faced. Covid-19 has also exposed and further clarified the poor conditions experienced by palm oil plantation workers, from job insecurity, low wages, isolation to documentation issues that are especially experienced by migrant workers.