Malaysia is the world’s second largest producer of palm oil after Indonesia, producing around 25% of the global supply. Palm oil is found in lots of packaged products in supermarkets, from peanut butter to shampoo.
Malaysia’s palm oil producers rely heavily on cheap foreign labour, mostly from Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal and India, which makes up more than 80% of the plantation workforce. The pandemic has exacerbated an existing labour shortage, with foreign workers unable to enter the country, leaving plantations facing a shortfall of around 40,000 workers. Local people have proved reluctant to sign up for the work, which is often described as difficult, dirty and dangerous.
Palm oil producers are now looking to prisons and drug rehabilitation centres for workers. Prison labour is easy to exploit and they have little room to reject the offer of work or access complaints mechanisms.
According to the UN’s International Labour Organization, if a company uses prison labour it must, “ensure that if a prisoner refuses the work offered there is no menace of any penalty”. But industry leaders have defended the plans, saying that prisoners will gain valuable training and skills to help them reintegrate into society.
Producers should focus on eradicating existing abuse in the industry, rather than trying to recruit from other vulnerable groups. Many of the workers are already victims of forced labour, a contemporary form of slavery. Workers on palm oil plantations have described abuses including passport confiscation, failure to provide work contracts, arbitrary fines and penalties, failure to pay the minimum wage, sexual harassment and physical threats and abuse by plantation managers. On Sunday a worker from Bangladesh died when he fell into a waste boiler at a palm oil mill, according to local media.
“Why aren’t these issues being addressed instead of looking for workers who may be more willing to accept substandard work conditions due to their circumstances? Is it because [prison labour] is easier to exploit and they have little room to reject the offer of work or access complaints mechanisms?” Sreedharan stated.
Sumitha Shaanthinni Kishna, a lawyer and director of Our Journey, which advocates for the rights of migrant employees, stated whereas the scheme may present inmates with a supply of earnings and financial savings after they depart jail, the federal government should assure participation is voluntary. “Consent is needed to ensure this initiative is not seen as forced labour,” she stated.
But business leaders have defended the plans, saying that prisoners will acquire useful coaching and abilities to assist them reintegrate into society.
“It’s a win-win situation for the prisoners and for the industry,” stated Ahmad Parveez Ghulam Kadir, director common of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, a authorities physique accountable for selling the business.
Nageeb Wahab, chief govt of the Malaysian Palm Oil Association, stated prisoners have been put to work on plantations since 2016, however the brand new proposal would “intensify” the programme. Wahab insisted the scheme, which might be for low-risk prisoners close to the top of their sentence, could be voluntary. Prisoners could be paid not lower than the minimal wage of 1,200 ringgit (£225) a month.
“It’s a stopgap measure,” stated Wahab. “This pandemic has opened our eyes that we are dependent on foreign labour. We need to increase our automation and mechanisation. We have to do it yesterday.”