Plantation workers in Malaysia face substandard working conditions – and it is even worse for female workers. An interview with Janarthani Arumugam, programme officer of the Malaysian NGO Empower.
unique: Why did you start working with Empower?
Janarthani: It was a good place to start working in the NGO industry. I understand my job as a way to empower people so that they can help themselves. I think this will be a very fulfilling career choice in the long run.
What kind of issues are you dealing with?
I usually deal with the issues of the plantation community in Malaysia. This community mainly consists of ethnic Indians who have been severely neglected in terms of policies to address poverty, in terms of getting access to welfare and social justice. This minority group faces marginalization and this further exacerbates the situation for women of the community. A higher percentage of Indian women make up the bulk of the work force in plantations to this day. I feel that the government has failed in addressing these issues.
What are the specific problems on the plantations?
In some cases, workers don’t have access to clean water, quality education, health care and safe working conditions. The entire community is stuck in this vicious cycle of poverty. On November 5th 2007, 35,000 Malaysian Indians took to the streets to protest the inequality of treatment by the state. However, this peaceful demonstration was brutally repressed by the government. The demonstrators were arrested and the police brutality was rampant. The government chose to ignore demands made and denied their concerns entirely.
Why do you think the government ignores them and doesn’t act?
Basically, this is because they are poor. It is very easy to ignore people who are marginalized and lack voice. A telling example would be in the case of receiving welfare help, sometimes they are ignored at the Welfare Department counters because some of them don’t speak the Malay language (official language) – despite living in this country for at least 50 years. It is not because they don’t want to, but rather because they don’t have access to proper education. This level of discrimination denies people justice and access to their rights. It’s really sad, but it happens continuously in this country.
What does the life of a plantation worker look like?
A typical plantation worker today would be about 60 years old and female. It is mainly women who need the jobs because they can’t get employment elsewhere. She is not skilled and the only thing she can do is to perform menial labour like pick up the palm oil kernels or work as a general worker in a palm oil plantation. They are given daily wages of 23 Malaysian Ringgit (four to five Euros). They work from 5 a.m. right up to 6 p.m. When they go home, there is not much they can do, because plantations are very isolated. Considering the costs of living and the inflation, the wage is very low. The wages haven’t really increased over the years. Since 1950 there have been only several significant increases of the wages.
There are unions, for example the National Union of Plantation Workers, but they don’t represent the workers well, as they are more partial to the companies. It is difficult for the workers to organize themselves, because there are problems like the caste system (culture based social stratification on individuals based on employment) and male domination. In the end you have many levels of problems and it is further compounded by poverty.
What do the living conditions look like on the plantations?
Usually they have a small house with two rooms and on average, a typical family consists of eight children. The workers think that their children are going to be resources in the future. The children don’t further their education to secondary school, because the schools are very far away and bus fares can be as high as ten US-Dollars a month. Although the workers’ household incomes fall below the Malaysian hardcore poverty line of 350 Malaysian Ringgit (85 Euros), they get charged very high industrial rates for water and electricity, because they live on the plantations that are considered a business entity. The costs of basic amenities alone take up a high portion of their meager incomes.
What is the situation like for women on the plantations?
Wages for women and men are the same, but there are a lot of women helping out their husbands and they don’t get recognition as workers themselves. So, they are not given benefits in terms of housing or in terms of medication. They don’t have medical or employment benefits. It’s difficult for women. They also have the double burden of having to do housework. Female children are forced to do housework at an early age to help out their mothers. The nature of the industry itself is extractive as it is very labour intensive. This has a lot of negative impact on the family structure itself, because in plantations there are hardly places for kids to play. They are so isolated from the towns and they don’t have access to the facilities that people living in towns enjoy.
Is there sexual harassment on the plantations?
Most definitely, there is. But there is hardly any record, because these women need the jobs and usually find it difficult to complain. The women work in very isolated areas and there is no mechanism for protection. In a place where there is as much discrimination and imbalance of power as on plantations, it is so easy to be exploited.
Do the companies know about that?
Of course, they do. In fact, some companies even have gender policies in place where they try to empower their female wor-kers. This is basically to gain the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) accreditation but it only exists on paper. It was an NGO that drafted the gender policy for them, but it has not really been made public. We have never seen the gender policy. We don’t really know how effective it is. We only know that it exists. We don’t know how women can take advantage of that policy or how they can be protected by this policy. It simply is not public knowledge.
What are the health issues on the plantations?
They use a lot of chemicals. The women go for training and are told to wear protective attire, but they never wear it. They say it restricts their movements and that they need to get the work done faster in order to keep the job. There is not enough monitoring going on at that level. In most of the plantations I have been to, I have never seen a water tank where workers could clean themselves to wash off the chemicals. People eat their meals in these highly toxic places. They go home straight after work, so the chemicals are in their homes as well.
Although it is said that they are provided with medical benefits, all they have is a small clinic, which is operated only five to six hours a day. And you must understand, these places are very isolated and very far from cities or towns, so they don’t have access to government hospitals. The small clinics at the plantations are maintained by someone who is not even a doctor, but a medical attendant. So you can go there if you have a headache or flu. There is no specialized medication for some who suffers from more serious complications.
Where does the palm oil go to? To whom do the Malaysian companies sell the oil?
It gets sold to Europe. European countries have made a demand that Malaysia would fulfill this new certification which is called the RSPO. It is a standard whereby the workers on plantations are given conducive living and working conditions. Malaysian companies created these selected model estates where they would bring the RSPO people or their investors. However, the majority actually live very much below the standards required by the RSPO. People in Europe may not be aware of this situation, but the companies exploit the workers here to maximize their profits.
Where do you think lies the responsibility to change this situation?
The Malaysian government needs to make the companies a lot more accountable! There has to be better implementation of existing laws, they need to engage much more with the workers, find out what their needs are and fulfill them. They need to give education opportunities to the children of the workers. Companies need to have better work policies and ensure the rights of their workers are protected. The workers also need to organize among themselves. That is what we are doing here at Empower: to help them understand what their rights are and how their rights are being trampled upon.
How do you feel at the end of the day?
I am very hopeful. Despite all of this going on there is a person like me who was created in this whole chaos. So, I am hopeful that things will change and that people will be empowered enough to see that change is possible. Yes, you do get very burned out at some points, but you just have to go on, because there are not many people working on these issues at this point of time.
Do you see any movement in the last few years in Malaysia?
Well, yes. There actually are a lot of demonstrations and resistance, but not something that would ensure workers rights. There is still a lot of empowerment work that needs to be done, but I think it will help create a critical mass and at some point of time there will be a strong resistance to these exploitative capitalistic industries. I am definitely hopeful that it will be positive for the people of this country, especially for women: in terms of claiming their rights and their access to justice. I think it will happen – maybe not in ten years, but in 20 or 30 years.
Thank you, Janarthani.
The interview was conducted by Franziska.
Janarthani works as a programme officer with Empower and is also a researcher under Asian Public Intellectuals Fellowship Programme. Empower is a Malaysian NGO that promotes political participation, especially for women. Janarthani is working on the issue of plantation workers in Malaysia, specifically on the issue of Indian ethnic plantation workers.