Costlier vegetables for Singapore likely after Cameron Highlands flash floods, crackdown

CAMERON HIGHLANDS - The crackdown on illegal workers in Cameron Highlands soon after flash floods damaged farms there will mean costlier vegetables and flowers in coming months.

Several farmers said the higher prices will impact local consumers as well as exports to Singapore and other countries, particularly during the Christmas season next month and Chinese New Year in February.

The Immigration Department has hauled in scores of foreign workers, who allegedly do not have proper work permits, after a Home Ministry investigation revealed that a syndicate was bringing in thousands of illegals here.

Many other foreign workers have also reportedly gone into hiding as the crackdown continues, giving the farmers a headache over how to tend their crops in the wake of the sudden shortage in their workforce.

This happened soon after flash floods and landslides caused much damage and killed five people on Nov 5.

The flooding was triggered by a long drawn out downpour that evening, which state authorities have blamed on illegal land clearing activities.

Yesterday, a team from The Star saw only skeleton crews tending to vast hectares of farmland in Ringlet town and other areas. Normally, there would be two or three workers for each hectare of farmland.

A farmer who asked to be identified only as Tan, 62, said he now has only two workers at his onion and vegetable farm where he had six previously.

"Taikor (boss) also has to work now!" he said as he tended to his plots with his wife.

The couple has four grown up children, but they have since moved away after getting married.

Another farmer who only gave his name as Chua, 55, only has three workers now for his 0.809ha mint leaf farm.

He said prices of vegetables and flowers would increase because many farmers may have to hire more help at short notice or suffer a limited harvest.

"Prices are going to go up. I sell a kilo (of mint leaves) for RM2 (S$0.80) now. This will go up by two to three ringgit by year end.

"It will definitely go higher around the Chinese New Year period due to the flood damage and crackdown on illegals," he said.

One 25-year-old woman, whose father farms flowers and vegetables, agreed with Chua.

"We can't say by how much just yet. But a bunch of flowers is about RM8 and will probably cost much more by the holiday season," she said, declining to give her name.

"Supply is also limited. Our harvest for specifically that period was partially destroyed by the floods. More farms were damaged this time, compared to the flash flood last year."

S. Vanitha, who runs a flower nursery, said many workers have been hauled up.

"There is much fear among worker communities. Not just farm hands are affected, also those working in restaurants, souvenir shops and other businesses."

Indian national Muniandy, 28, a farm worker, said his boss keeps his documents close at hand in case of any spot checks.

"Many of us have also been told not to speak to any people unfamiliar to us," he said.