Malaysian farmers fight to harvest amid labor crunch

STORY: From day to night at this plantation in Malaysia, Ari Rohman heaves ripe palm fruit into a tiny wheelbarrow.

The palm oil extracted from the fruits is used to make edible oils.

Malaysia is the world's second-largest producer of the commodity.

But with a vast area to cover, Rohman won't be able to get them all before the harvest cycle is over.

He doesn't have much of a choice.

He's the only worker present on the whole estate.

“I start work at 7 in the morning and finish around 5 to 6 in the evening. The problem now is that it’s very tiring, as I’m the only one working, there’s no one else, it's just me at the moment.”

Foreign workers, mostly from Indonesia like Rohman, typically made up about 80% of the workforce on Malaysian plantations.

That's millions of workers recruited from overseas each year.

But that was before the global health crisis, and Malaysia's resulting decision to halt the recruit of foreign labor.

And despite lifting that freeze in February, Malaysia has not seen a significant return of workers.

Industry insiders say that's due to slow government approvals and conflicts over worker protections.

Now the prolonged labour crunch is only worsening as demand grows.

Plantation owners like Mohd Sharul Haizam Shafei can do little else but let some of their harvest go to waste.

“Previously we could harvest twice a month, but now the cycle has changed to every 21 days and once a month.”

“In terms of fruit capacity, at the moment, we can get about 200-250 tonnes (per cycle). If we had more workers, we would be able to get 300 tonnes or more. So, there’s a loss of about 50 tonnes.”

Analysts warn that the country faces even bigger losses.

Global supply chain disruptions and the war in Ukraine are causing palm oil prices to skyrocket.

But Malaysia won't be able to capitalise on that potential revenue until the labour shortage is resolved.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting