Lower palm oil exports threaten jobs among foreign migrant workers
Foreign workers come mainly from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Indonesia and have few rights, as indicated by a recent report by the International Organisation for Migration. Malaysia is the world’s second-largest palm oil producer, but its exports are threatened by environmental restrictions adopted last December by the European Union.
Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) – About 80 per cent of the workforce of half a million employed in Malaysia’s palm oil industry are migrant workers from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Indonesia; their rights are not guaranteed and they are the first to feel the impact of negative shifts in the markets.
A report titled The Cost of Hope: Stories of Migrant Workers in Palm Oil Plantations in Malaysia, by the International Organisation for Migration (IMO) reads: “In the palm oil sector, employers reportedly often seize and withhold migrant workers’ passports, and use this method as a safeguard against workers escaping.” This is banned under both Malaysian and international law.
“Companies have also reportedly requested that workers keep their passport in lockers on the oil palm plantation estate’s main office. While workers would have the keys of their own locker, they would need permission from the management to enter the main office. In the oil palm plantation estate where Panji (a worker cited in the report) works, the lockers’ room is located directly opposite the management office.
“While workers would have the keys of their own locker, they would need permission from the management to enter the main office. In the oil palm plantation estate where Panji works, the lockers’ room is located directly opposite the management office.”
Malaysia is a major palm oil producer, with 44 per cent of world exports, with world production at around 74 million tonnes a year, with India and China as the main importers, although some also goes to Indonesia. However, as a result of new environmental regulations adopted by the European Union last December, export to European markets are endangered.
As a result, Malaysia, along with Indonesia, appears to be moving towards an export ban to the European Union, even though the latter has rejected allegations that it is banning the product.
In 2022, the EU was the world's third-largest importer of Malaysian palm oil with 9.4 per cent. Thus, its restrictions and similar moves by other importers would have a serious impact on the country’s palm oil sector, which covers more than 70 per cent of its agricultural land, some 2.3 million hectares in Peninsular Malaysia alone.
One of the reasons for EU restrictions is that palm oil production has led to large-scale deforestation with related habitat loss for several animal species now on the brink of extinction.
In Malaysia, if fully implemented, restrictions could have a devastating impact on jobs, especially for migrant workers, many of whom would be forced to go home or join the underground economy in a country where they are already victims of abuse and exploitation.
Overall, foreign workers, who already play a major role in many sectors of Malaysia’s economy, number two million out of a workforce of some 16 million.