Malaysia's palm producers to recruit prisoners and ex-drug addicts to solve coronavirus-driven labour crunch

Planters have in recent months embarked on rare recruitment drives to hire locals to do everything.
PHOTO: Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR  - Malaysia's labour-reliant palm oil companies are looking to recruit recovering drug addicts and prisoners to solve a severe shortage of foreign workers that has worsened due to a coronavirus-driven border closure.

Planters in the world's second largest producer have in recent months embarked on rare recruitment drives to hire locals to do everything from harvesting to fertilising, but response has been lukewarm.

Migrants from Indonesia and Bangladesh make up nearly 85 per cent of plantation hands in an industry locals typically shun as dirty, dangerous and difficult.

But travel and movement restrictions have left producers grappling with a shortage of 37,000 workers, nearly 10 per cent of the total workforce. 

The shortage, especially during the peak production months of September-November, will hurt output by delaying the harvest of perishable fruit, giving an edge to No. 1 producer Indonesia, which has no significant labour problems.

The Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA) estimated the industry has lost up to 30 per cent of its potential yield as the labour crunch delays harvesting, and pegged the country’s crude palm oil output to be much lower than last year’s 19.9 million tonnes.

"We are even reaching out to Department of Orang Asli Development, the Drug Prevention Association of Malaysia, as well as the Prisons Department in search of locals," industry group the Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA) said in a statement on Tuesday evening (Sept 8).

Collaboration with the Prisons Department to recruit parolees and prisoners under supervision first started in 2016 in one government-linked firm, but now more companies are interested in the programme, chief executive Nageeb Wahad told Reuters.

Sime Darby Plantation, the world’s largest palm producer by land size, on Wednesday said it is 2,500 workers short – about 10 per cent of its foreign labour force – and that companies are "desperate" to explore every opportunity for new recruits.  

"We are looking at prisons for those who are going to be released in the next few months," Sime Darby’s Chief Financial Officer Renaka Ramachandran said in a webinar. "We have also gone to drug rehabilitation centres and try to employ anyone who could be appropriate."