Sunday, June 18, 2006

Malaysia's economic backbone - unappreciated & marginalised!

This is one of the reasons why the government has dragged its heels about registering the Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM). It’s not because the political party has a ‘pink’ hue but it’s the fear of the PSM forming plantation workers into unions, especially militant ones.

Arutchelvan, a labour right activist and also Parti Sosialis Malaysia pro tem secretary-general, told the press after the launch of an exhibition entitled "National Development: 150-year sacrifice of estate workers" in Central Market, Kuala Lumpur, that the plantation industry has become a breeding ground for poverty.

If conditions cannot be improved, and he lamented that the government seems uninterested, he believes that the industry should be closed down altogether.

He related how a rubber tapper is denied a fixed monthly wage, housing, health schemes and basic amenities such as schools, and makes just around RM325 a month based on the amount of latex the tapper could harvest. Even then the unfortunate tapper is subordinated to the vagaries of weather.

He said: “If the plantation workers don’t get anything out of the industry, why keep it around? It’s the end of the plantation era. Just shut the estates down and not make the workers suffer anymore. The land instead could be given to the workers and they can develop it themselves like the Felda and Felcra schemes.”

“The main shareholders in the large plantation companies are from the public sector and are owned by the government through investment arms such as Permodalan Nasional Berhad and Amanah Saham Nasional. This means the worker’s employer is the government.”

“Unlike normal jobs, a rubber tapper is not paid a monthly wage and they never know how much they will earn.”

“They are paid according to how much latex is tapped. If the weather is too hot, the latex dries up too quickly. If it’s raining, they cannot tap at all. They are subjected to conditions that are beyond their control.”

Ironically the rubber tapper is a skilled and hardworking specialist who gets up in the unholy early hours to tap his or her allocation of trees before the morning sun warms up and stops the flow of latex. An unskilled taper could damage the trees to the economic detriment of the plantation.

Despite being the backbone of the Malayan-Malaysian prosperity for the last 150 years through its rubber exports, the rubber tapper has not been fully appreciated and paid appropriately for his/her specialist skill.

In his/her profession, the tapper has to brave the mosquitoes and the dangerous denizens of the bush – from tigers to poisonous snakes, and in the earlier days, the communist insurgents. Yet he/she is treated as nothing more than cheap unskilled labour, virtually modern-day serfs, to ensure the owners maximize their profits.

Perhaps rather than call for the abandonment of the plantation industry, Arutchelvan would be more effective in calling on the tappers to seek other jobs. The cruel world of commerce works on the 'supply & demand' system, so with more tappers (of the younger generation) leaving for other professions, the importance and value of the remaining older tappers would be more appreciated by their employers, with an appropriate rise in salaries, maybe even fixed monthly ones.

For example, the bloom of the IT industry in the last decade or more has been of grave concern to the aviation industry as airlines are finding it more and more difficult to recruit aircraft maintenance technicians. IT is an easier, more attractive (to young people) and better paid profession than aircraft engineering. Today the airline industry is desperately wooing young men and women to take up a shrinking profession so vital to its continuing safe operations.

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