Malaysia is known for medical studies

Immigration, Displacement and Asylum: Current Issues

Janina powder

is a research assistant at the Institute for Sociology at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena. As part of the BMBF junior research group "Bioeconomy and Social Inequalities", she is researching and doing her doctorate on transnational rural working conditions and over-exploitation in the context of the emerging bioeconomy in Malaysia using the example of migrant workers.

Palm oil is an indispensable part of our everyday life. It can be found in many products in almost every private household. The environmental degradation associated with cultivation is often reported, but not the workforce and the conditions in which they work.

Fruits of the oil palm. The oil palms cultivated for the production of palm oil are grown in Malaysia - as well as in neighboring countries in the region - in large monocultures. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa, Hotli Simanjuntak)

Malaysian palm oil for the world - migrant workers for Malaysia

Palm oil can be found in almost every private household today. Whether in food, cosmetics or biofuels - the world market can no longer be imagined without the flexible and energetically high quality vegetable oil. With a global market share of more than 33 percent, Malaysia is the second largest palm oil producer in the world after Indonesia. [1] In 2017, more than 73 percent of Malaysia's agricultural area was used to cultivate oil palms. [2] The most important buyers of Malaysian palm oil include India, China and the countries of the European Union. [3]

Palm oil gained notoriety in the early 2000s due to the destruction of complex ecosystems associated with its cultivation. [4] Less known than the ecological consequences of industrial palm oil production are the socio-economic conditions under which palm oil is extracted in Malaysia.

The oil palms cultivated for the production of palm oil are grown in Malaysia - as well as in neighboring countries in the region (including Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines) - in large monocultures. A large part of the harvest, rearing and care of the oil palms has to be carried out 'by hand', as these activities could not be mechanized up to now. These are mostly heavy physical and health-endangering activities, which in Malaysia are predominantly carried out by migrant workers.

Malaysia is considered the most important destination for so-called low-skilled workers from the region. [5] In 2019 there were around 3.49 million documented migrants. [6] In addition, it is estimated that between 1.46 and 4.6 million undocumented migrant workers are in formal or informal employment in Malaysia. [7] This means that the Southeast Asian country has one of the largest migrant workers in the world in relation to the absolute number of workers. [8] The majority of the workforce, which comes from Indonesia, the Philippines, Nepal, Myanmar, India and Bangladesh [9], is primarily employed in the plantation economy, in the construction sector, in the industrial manufacturing sector and in the service sector - including home care - for activities with low Qualification requirements are used. [10] In 2012, 87 percent of all workers employed on oil palm plantations as harvesters, loose fruit collectors, or field labor were foreign nationals [11] - most of them came from Indonesia. [12] The cheap labor of 'low-skilled' migrant workers is an important factor in competition and growth in the Malaysian economy, especially with regard to export-oriented sectors such as the palm oil industry. [13]

Cheap labor - segmented labor market

Already under British colonial rule (late 18th century until independence in 1957), foreign workers became an integral part of Malaysia's economic development. Local labor was either not available in some regions due to their sparsely populated population or the local population refused to work under the harsh conditions of colonial capitalism. [14] The demand for foreign labor increased at the beginning of the twentieth century with the steady growth of important economic sectors such as the production of natural rubber, which was then largely replaced by oil palms in the 1960s. [15] Since the 1970s, the influx of labor migrants has led to the formation of a state-regulated labor migration regime. [16]

In the case of Malaysia, there is now often talk of an ethnically segmented labor market. Put simply, this means that there is a certain division of labor between 'domestic' and 'migrant' workers. While Malaysian workers are more likely to be found in occupations that require higher qualifications, the Malaysian state actively channels the migration of 'low-skilled' workers into those fields of employment that are considered unattractive for local workers due to the low wage level and poor working conditions . The development of a transnational reserve of migrant workers can be attributed mainly to the following reasons: Political efforts to bridge the persistent gap between supply and demand for cheap labor in Malaysia, state support for emigration in the countries of origin of these workers and the decision of foreign workers, looking for work in Malaysia.

The migrant workers are attracted by the higher wages compared to their countries of origin and the hope of being able to save enough money to improve their standard of living in their country of origin. The workers are usually recruited through family or non-family social networks or through private agents or agencies.

Working and living conditions of migrant workers in the palm oil industry

In palm oil production, the foreign workers are mainly used for labor-intensive, physically demanding activities. There is a gender division of labor on oil palm plantations. While male workers are primarily responsible for the harvest and removal of the oil palm fruits, women take care of the oil palm seedlings, the picking up of loose fruits and the spraying of pesticides for pest control. The latter can lead to serious health problems, as women often do not have adequate protective clothing available when working with the toxins. The consequences can be skin burns, nerve diseases, even miscarriages and deformities of newborns. The use of child labor is also not uncommon on the oil palm plantations.

Malaysia tries to prevent the migrant workforce from building a life beyond their work. Migrant workers are not allowed to bring their families to Malaysia or marry there. [17] In practice, however, these bans are often ignored. Many migrant workers bring their family members into the country illegally or bribe government employees to allow their families to enter the country or forge birth certificates of their children so that they become Malaysian citizens. If children of migrant workers are illegally born in Malaysia because their parents do not have a right of residence for themselves and / or their children, they are usually de facto stateless as they are neither recognized by the Malaysian authorities nor by those of the countries of origin.

Migrants who want to work in Malaysia must apply for a formal work permit, which is initially valid for three years and can then be extended for up to two years. Depending on your nationality, the Malaysian authorities grant different types of permits for selected economic sectors. This leads to a state-regulated division of labor according to nationality. [18] Indonesian workers are more often employed in the agricultural and construction sectors, while Filipino workers are mostly recruited as domestic carers. Since migrant workers are no longer allowed to change jobs after a work permit has been issued, they are highly dependent on their employer. [19] In the palm oil sector, many employers also confiscate workers' passports to prevent them from leaving the company. This also increases the dependency of migrant workers on their employers, as this practice considerably restricts their (cross-border) freedom of movement.

Often foreign workers slide into illegality because they change their job illegally, their work permits expire or are withdrawn due to an economic recession. Their position in the labor market then changes in two ways: On the one hand, undocumented workers gain autonomy, as they can now move freely from one job to another, do not pay taxes and it is difficult to get them to leave the country because no information about their whereabouts is available to the authorities. [20] On the other hand, they run the risk of being captured by government agencies or government-sponsored paramilitary groups and sent to detention centers, where they are often inadequately supplied with food, subjected to corporal punishment and ultimately deported.

The wages of migrant workers almost never exceed the minimum wage. Studies have also shown that wages can vary widely - depending on whether they are based on open-ended contracts or based on harvest quotas or piece rates. [22] The wages and working conditions depend heavily on the employer. A broad distinction can be made between three different types of employers: [23]
  • Smallholders,
  • Medium-sized plantation and milling companies as well
  • large, internationally operating or state-affiliated companies.
While larger companies try to exhaust the legal provisions on minimum wages and overtime, the workers employed by smallholders are regularly underpaid and underemployed. [24]

Social advancement through migration - an illusion?

Since the 1950s, Malaysia has had various policy packages designed to help narrow the income gap between urban and rural households, fight poverty and create attractive new jobs. However, none of these programs aimed to improve the working and living conditions of the large number of 'low-skilled' migrant workers living in the country. This also applies to the bioeconomy strategy adopted in 2012. [25] With this program, Malaysia is striving for an ecologically sustainable transformation of its own economy, which should also have positive socio-economic effects for the population - especially in rural areas. However, migrant workers are not mentioned in this strategy.

There are some trade unions (such as the Sabah Plantation Industry Employees Union - SPIEU) and non-governmental organizations (such as Tenaganita) that campaign for the rights of migrant workers in Malaysia. Beyond that, however, migrant workers in the palm oil industry hardly receive any support. Most of the major unions in the country show little solidarity with migrant workers. Instead, they advocate privileging domestic workers; migrant workers play no role in their policies. Given the persistently precarious living and working conditions, the social advancement hoped for and associated with migration does not materialize for most foreign workers.

Current developments: labor migration and pandemic

Since the beginning of the global Covid-19 pandemic, palm oil production has been shut down in large parts of Malaysia [27]. This means that immigrant workers have been relieved of their jobs en masse, [28] which in many cases amounted to expulsion, since the residence permits of foreign workers in Malaysia are usually linked to employment. Undocumented migrant workers were held in custody en masse, without a chance to comply with the necessary hygiene rules to reduce the risk of infection, and without medical care. In addition, migrant workers, both in Malaysia and in their countries of origin, were publicly stigmatized by portraying them as a group with a high risk of infection due to their mobility and living conditions.

Because wages were often no longer paid when palm oil production was temporarily shut down, the living conditions of the workers affected deteriorated. Many could no longer get enough food and other essential goods. Particularly vulnerable migrant groups (day laborers, contract workers and undocumented workers) were particularly affected. In addition, they were cut off from medical supplies that were previously often provided on the plantations. Undocumented migrant workers in particular, who may have been infected with the virus, lacked access to medical help. [29]

However, the situation did not worsen across the board. Reports from workers and union activists show that some plantation companies only implemented the general hygiene rules in a rudimentary way and carried out "business as usual" even during the pandemic. In unionized plantations, however, it was often possible to obtain continued payment of wages, provide accommodation for the workers and maintain basic health services.

This article is part of the Policy Brief, Migration in Urban and Rural Areas.