With the Indonesian oil palm industry rapidly expanding, it is increasingly difficult to source additional workers
As of June 2012, the state has 1.21 million hectares of palm oil and 58 mills with a combined processing capacity of 102.14 million tonnes of FFBs a year.
But the state whilst riding a wave of success with palm oil is facing twin threats – the global perception of palm oil and a shortage of manpower.
Land Development Minister James Masing, during the recent sitting of the state legislative assembly, highlighted the two pertinent challenges confronting the palm oil industry.
“The latest challenge is the attacks against palm oil in France. These come in two forms – the ‘palm oil free’ labels now prominently stamped on many food cartons, and the ‘Nutella tax’ which proposes a 400% hike on palm oil shipped into France.
“The ‘Nutella Tax’ which was initiated by a French senator is based on claims alleging that the food ingredient is bad for health. It is alleged that it contains high levels of saturated fats and that the palm oil industry is causing indiscriminate deforestation.
“Whether or not this tax is passed by the French government is immaterial as consumers and retailers may already have a very negative perception of palm oil,” said Masing, adding that palm oil is currently one of the most extensively researched oil.
He said research and human clinical trials have shown that palm oil increases good cholesterol and beneficially modulates the bad one, therefore reducing the risk of coronary heart disease.
Palm oil has also been found to play a protective role in cellular ageing, hardening of the arteries and cancer.
Masing said the findings of the Malaysian research have been objectively reviewed by scientists from 19 countries representing a range of appropriate disciplines.
The reviews, he added had also been fully endorsed by renowned international nutrition scientists. Comparative studies have also shown that oil palm is the world’s most productive oil producing plant, yielding about five tonnes of oil per hectare in Malaysia.
Palm oil yields 10 times more oil than soybean, seven times more than sunflower and five times more than rapeseed, and occupies less than 5% of land under oil seeds cultivation.
“All these show that what the French activists and lobbyists have said, in fact, go against scientific explanations. We can only conclude that these allegations are based purely on economic rivalry to protect their sunflower and rapeseed farmers.
“Thus, those allegations are mere lies. But the sad fact is that these lies have been taken as the truth by the ill-informed consumers,” said Masing.
He said that apart from the formation of a joint committee between Malaysia and France, the authorities should consider making full use of the social media in tackling these accusations.
This would ensure that the state has global reach to the consumers and retailers, not only in France, but in other countries as well, he added.
Masing said that the other challenge which has become a bane to the industry is the perennial shortage of workers.
Sarawak’s labour department statistics show that as of June 30, 2012 there were 98,092 persons working in oil palm plantations, out of these 80% are Indonesians.
“As the industry in Indonesia is expanding very rapidly, it has become increasingly more difficult to get additional workers from that country.
“Thus, the state government is considering other source countries for the recruitment of workers to ease the shortage, ” he said, adding that this was however a short term solution.
Make jobs attractive
Masing said what the industry “urgently” needed were long term solutions to the shortage of workers.
He suggested that that the plantation industry itself “play a positive role” in making jobs attractive and appealing to workers.
“One long term solution is to attract our own people to work in the oil palm plantations. This should help ease the shortage of workers and prepare us for further expansion.
“In this regard, the setting up of a skills training centre located at Jalan Simpang Gedong, Serian by a private sector company is commendable.
“I’m sure the innovative ‘five package formula’ to be used by the centre would be able to attract our locals, albeit at the lower category plantation workers, towards plantation work.
“Another way to attract the locals is to give tours of the plantations to students and under-graduates, and offer holiday work to them during school breaks.
“In this way, they will know about plantation works on a first hand basis. Attractive remuneration such as comfortable accommodation should also be given serious thought.
“The other long-term solution is to increase mechanisations in field operations. The enhanced R&D in field mechanisation by MPOB is a step in the right direction.
“It is, however, equally important for the R&D to give greater emphasis on designing and producing more machines and equipment that are affordable and suitable for use in plantations in Sarawak in view of its less favourable terrain,” said Masing.