S’wak’s Bangladeshi workers issue turns red hot

The state government’s policy of recruiting Bangladeshi workers rather than locals to work in oil palm plantations is a current hot issue in the state with observers saying it may affect BN’s performance in the coming state elections.

They point out that locals, particularly the Dayaks who earn their living in the plantations, are unhappy with the state government’s move to bring in the foreigners, arguing it will affect their livelihoods.

bd workersIn November, state Land Development Minister James Masing announced the recruitment of 12,000 Bangladeshi workers to work in Sarawak oil palm plantations, and this ignited a lively debate.

The first batch of 5,000 Bangladeshi workers will arrive in Sarawak next month.

Dayak-based non-governmental organisations have reacted angrily with several protests demanding the state government put a stop to the recruitment of foreign workers.

“Why is Sarawak giving priority to foreigners and sidelining local workers, especially the Dayaks,” thundered president of Gerakan Anak Sarawak (Gasak) Abun Sui said in an interview with Malaysiakini.

A more pressing need, said Abun Sui, was for the government to provide a better salary package, bonuses and other incentives to entice locals to take up plantation jobs.

As it is now, he disclosed, some local workers are paid as low as only RM10 a day, adding it was impossible for anyone to live on such a meagre wage.

Similar concerns were also expressed by the Barisan Anak Iban (Bisa), the Dayak National Congress (DNC) and the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (Sadia) at their protests over the matter in Serian last month.

“Since the announcement (by Masing), there has been widespread concern amongst Dayak groups that such a large influx of foreign workers is both a threat to local workers and unnecessary.

“The Dayaks, who have already been sidelined in many sectors of employment in their home state including in the civil service and teaching, now face further challenges in the agricultural sector, traditionally their preserve,” said Bisa president Peter John Jaban.

Fearing that the issue might be politicised for the coming state elections, Masing, who is president of Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS), gave assurance that only a small number of Bangladeshi workers would be brought into Sarawak initially.

He said they would be employed on a two-year contract and if they could not adapt, they would be sent back.

Masing (left) stressed that the recruitment of Bangladeshi workers as harvesters for the plantation sector was the last resort as locals had shunned such jobs.

“We need workers in the plantations and we have no choice. If the locals can do it, my goodness, I will be happy if they are willing,” Masing was quoted as saying.

Labelling the Dayak NGOs as ‘armchair critics’, he said they should first study the reality on the ground.

Currently the state was looking for a least 30,000 harvesters as the industry was losing some RM1 billion per annum due to uncollected fresh fruit bunches, he said, while challenging the NGOs to look for 30,000 Dayaks to work in the plantations.

Sarawak has currently 1.2 million hectares of land planted with oil palm, he said.

Joining the debate for its political mileage is Sarawak DAP, which is eyeing 15 Dayak majority seats in the yet-to-be-announced but coming state elections.

“The state government’s policy to allow the hiring of Bangladeshi workers for plantations will only benefit BN cronies and the plantation companies at the expense of the locals,” said its chief Chong Chieng Jen in a recent statement.

He said Masing might seem to project a reluctance to implement this policy, but reminded that during the last state assembly sitting in November, he (Masing) was a strong proponent for importing foreign workers.

Masing’s argument in support of foreign workers skirted the issue of large plots of state land (many with Native Customary Right [NCR] claims) sold cheaply to crony companies for oil palm plantations, Chong alleged.

Chong, who is Kota Sentosa assemblyperson, said this sudden need for foreign plantation workers first arose because the Sarawak government alienated too much state land too quickly to private companies for plantation use.

“Another effect is that the natives continue to be deprived of their NCR land,” he said, pointing out the impact of hiring of a large number of foreign workers was three-fold.

Firstly, it suppressed the rate of wages payable to the locals working in plantation and secondly, it further increased ‘land grab’ activities in Sarawak.

Thirdly, according to Chong, with so many oil palm plantations, the state’s environment’s quality would deteriorate in the long-term with crucial water resources the first to be threatened.



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