No Field of Dreams

PEKAN SEMUNJAN, Sarawak, Malaysia – We were lost.

All the roads looked the same, with oil-palm trees standing on either side of each path. It felt like we were in a labyrinth, and our driver, Mazlan, seemed as confused as we were. He said he was once a worker here, but that was about a decade ago. “I haven’t been here for a long time,” he said.

We made a few more rounds on what looked like the same roads, and stopped several people to ask for directions. But it may have been sheer luck that we were able to finally reach our destination: a small hut with walls of plywood and galvanised iron. It happened to be at the end of the plantation and close to a lush forest.

Some people were relaxing in front of the hut. They looked worried when we approached, and most stayed silent even after I introduced myself as a journalist from Indonesia. But one of them immediately piped up upon learning where I was from. “You came from Indonesia?” said the wiry man who we shall call Mardi. “I came from Indonesia, too, from Kapuas Hulu (in West Kalimantan). But I haven’t been home for a long time.”

He said he was a harvester at the plantation. Sometimes, he said, he would also cut the weeds or apply fertiliser on the plants.

Mardi was actually what the Malaysians call an orang kosong or a person without documents. So were several of the people living in the hut, which was why it was where it was – hard to find, with a natural backdoor that could hide people who wanted (and needed) to be suddenly invisible. According to some estimates, some two million foreign workers in Malaysia are without proper papers, many of them Indonesians.

Malaysia’s palm-oil industry probably harbours a good number of these undocumented foreign labourers. In the plantation sector, palm-oil estates have the biggest workforce: almost 578,000, of which at least 60 percent are foreigners. Of these non-local labourers, as much as 80 percent are Indonesians, according to Alex Ong of the non-government group Migrant Care.

“Malaysians prefer to do other jobs rather than work in oil-palm plantations,” Ong had told me in Kuala Lumpur, where he is based. “The reasons are the low salary and the heavy workload.”

Shafinaz Suhaimi, a programme officer at the human-rights group Tenaganita, also said that palm-oil workers often have to deal with health and safety issues. “There are some plantations that already provide all (the workers’ needs, such as clean water and housing),” she said, “but still a lot do not fulfill the rights of the workers.”

Ong pointed out as well that many of the oil-palm plantations were in remote areas. “Imagine if something happened to (the workers),” said the bespectacled activist. “Often they do not receive the necessary protection.”

Our driver Mazlan, who is a resident of the area, put it more simply: “This place is not healthy.”

Major revenue earner

Malaysia’s palm-oil industry – the second largest in the world – has been this country’s biggest revenue source for years now. It can well afford to be generous to its workers. In 2009 alone, Malaysia’s palm-oil exports reached some $1.6 billion, representing 7.5 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). About 4.6 million hectares of land in Malaysia are devoted to oil palms, with most of the plantations owned by the government itself.

According to Human Rights Watch-Asia Deputy Director Phil Robertson, the main problem of labour in Malaysia is the absence of a national minimum salary. A worker’s wage, he noted, is determined by the market; essentially, that means business owners can give any amount as salary as they see fit.

“Very often, the workers receive wages below standard,” Robertson said. “Even Cambodia has a minimum salary, but why not Malaysia? What’s with the Malaysian government? I think all are related to money. They are able to have low-paid workers (and) that is beneficial to them (only).”

To Robertson, this is dangerous since he said it could lead to human trafficking. But while he suggested that Indonesia convince Malaysia to have a minimum salary, he also said that members of ASEAN consider the issue together and come up with a common plan to protect workers, including non-locals. Indonesia, after all, is not the only country within the region to have millions of citizens working abroad – with hundreds of thousands of them in ASEAN countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. So do the Philippines and Burma.

It’s no secret that ASEAN has the ill repute of being a paper tiger. Still, some Southeast Asian observers have taken heart now that the regional grouping has been moving towards creating what it says would be an “ASEAN community” by 2015. The establishment last year of an ASEAN human-rights body has also boosted hopes that the group is finally on its way to addressing rights concerns – including those affecting labour – aside from economic, cultural, and security issues.

The prospects that these two developments offer regarding concerns that used to be overlooked by ASEAN have even excited Indonesian Ambassador to Malaysia Dai Bahtiar, who says that the ASEAN community would certainly “lead to a better direction”. He told this writer in an interview that Indonesia would contribute actively to this community. “With the ASEAN community, each country needs to collaborate in solving problems of migrant workers,” said the diplomat. “We want to implement that.”

Group or country initiative

ASEAN, however, has always been slow-moving…in the times that it deigns to move at all. Dai Bahtiar himself concedes, “We face so many challenges because this is related to the political and economic conditions of each country. For example, in terms of providing a decent wage for migrant workers, we still continue to urge the Malaysian government to perform various (reforms). We urge minimum wage standards for Indonesian migrant workers, but Malaysia (has yet to set these).”

He said that the Malaysian and Indonesian governments had been working on updating a 2006 Memorandum of Understanding that dealt specifically with domestic helpers from Indonesia; the two countries had yet to hold talks on Indonesians working in Malaysian plantations. “But later,” he said, “Malaysia should protect each migrant worker (here).”

That is especially considering the contribution of migrant workers to Malaysia’s economy. Noted Ong: “During the 1998 financial crisis, the oil-palm plantation was one of the sectors that was able to survive and rescue Malaysia. Until now, Malaysia’s economy is developing fast. Roads have been widened. High-rise buildings are appearing everywhere. In this success, the role of Indonesian (and other foreign) workers should not be forgotten.”

To be fair, Human Rights Watch has noted that the Malaysian Ministry of Human Resources has been studying a suggested minimum-wage mechanism for the private sector. The international rights watchdog also says that the Malaysian Trade Unions Congress is pushing for the implementation of a minimum monthly salary of 900 ringgit (about $266). Interestingly, Human Rights Watch says as well that the Malaysian government considers those with monthly incomes of 750 ringgit ($222) as falling below the national poverty line.

At the oil-palm plantations, the work can be backbreaking. There is still morning dew when the labourers leave their camps and head for work. On one particular morning, I followed two men who were set to harvest fruits. One of them lugged a long wooden stick that had one end connected to a sharp tool. The other worker brought a cart to put the fruits in.

The two men divided the tasks: the older one was to cut the branches with oil-palm fruits and the younger one was to collect them. One by one the fruit branches fell. At one point, the skinny younger man lifted and put a branch bigger than his body in a designated collecting area. His face and shirt were bathed with sweat. They were busy from Monday to Saturday, he said. They returned to their camps only at sundown.

By working for eight hours, each worker receives the equivalent of $5. They get a bonus if they work more and fulfill the target set by the plantation owner. “If we work diligently, our wages will be higher,” said the older worker. “If we are lazy, we do not get any money.”

Too little to put some away

Some activists say such wages are pretty low. Tenaganita’s Shafinaz commented, “There are still workers who are paid less than 10 ringgit (about $3). Working the whole day with a heavy work load, they should get more appropriate wages.”

That could be why many plantation workers here find it hard to save money. Daner Adinugutunis, who has been hard at work at the plantation here for the last five years, admitted that he has yet to be able to send money home to Indonesia. “I very much want to send money but, up to now, I haven’t saved any,” he said. “The work here is very hard, but my salary is not enough. All the money is spent for food. I just hope that my parents and family are healthy back home.”

He had just sent a text message to his mother back in his home country saying that he would not be able to go home this year. She has kept on asking him the same question since he decided to work here. “Maybe two or three more years before I can go home, “ said Daner as he slipped his cell phone into his pants’ pocket.

He did not seem worried that foreign plantation workers are allowed to stay in Malaysia for a maximum of only five years, which means his time here is almost up. Should he insist on staying, he may have to learn how to dodge authorities like what his colleagues who are here illegally have been doing. Getting caught without papers can mean jail time, whipping, and deportation.

One young illegal worker said he had perfected a system that has helped him avoid being arrested by local authorities. “If I do not have any important business to do,” he said, “I will not go out of the plantation. Day by day I stay in the plantation. In case I have to go out, I have to be alert. I cannot go too far.”

So far, he has lasted four years here without getting in trouble with the law. What if someone gets sick? I asked. “Just treat him inside the camp,” the worker replied. “If he is brought to the hospital, he could possibly be arrested by the police.”

Mardi, who was the first to speak up and had offered greetings when we first came to the plantation, indicated that what he has gone through in this country in the past four years was not what he had expected. He said that at first, he had not been interested to go to Malaysia, but a friend had helped change his mind. Recounted Mardi: “He said that the wage was good and the work pleasant. I thought about it for two days. Finally, I decided to go, more so since I did not have any work in my village.”

He was only 16 years old at the time. Together with several friends, he entered Malaysia on foot, travelling for one day through forest, climbing hills and passing through tiny paths. He said there were no guards at the border and that they had no problems crossing over.

A busload of hopefuls

I would later see for myself just how easy it is to get into Malaysia from Indonesia, when I rode an inter-country bus headed for Kuching, Malaysia and that passed Entikong in West Kalimantan. Only a few of us were tourists; most of the passengers were apparently hoping to work in Malaysia.

By some coincidence, my bus seatmate turned out to be a recruiter of illegal workers. At the Entikong Border Examination Post, West Kalimantan, I watched as she collected her recruits’ passports and passed them on to a waiting gentleman. She told me later that she often gave money to police and immigration officers so that her clients could pass through without a hitch.

She also said that every month, she would bring some 10 to 15 Indonesians to various places in Malaysia like Bintulu, Miri, Sabah, and Sarawak. “I have already a lot of contacts there,” she said with a hint of pride. “If they need workers, I immediately supply them.”

Perhaps she had told her recruits the same things Mardi had heard from his friend. Of course I had also seen some satisfied migrant workers in at least one plantation that was about three hours away by car from Kuala Lumpur. There, the employees’ quarters had beds, bathrooms, and entertainment facilities, and the workers said they were paid adequately. But here in the Malaysian hinterlands, the opposite was being experienced by Mardi, Daner, and their fellow workers.

“Actually, I regret coming here,” said Daner. “But never mind, since I am already here, I will just keep on working. Hopefully, within the next two years, I will have good fortune.”