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Malaysia: Prisoners may face forced labour on palm oil plantations

Prisoners are expected to be put to work on Malaysia’s giant palm oil plantations to make up for an acute labour shortage heightened by the coronavirus pandemic. Workers’ rights experts have warned that the proposal by the country’s palm oil producers may constitute “institutionalised forced labour” in an industry already accused of widespread abuse and exploitation of workers.

Malaysia is the world’s second largest producer of palm oil after Indonesia, producing around 25% of the global supply. Palm oil is found in lots of packaged products in supermarkets, from peanut butter to shampoo.

Malaysia’s palm oil producers rely heavily on cheap foreign labour, mostly from Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal and India, which makes up more than 80% of the plantation workforce. The pandemic has exacerbated an existing labour shortage, with foreign workers unable to enter the country, leaving plantations facing a shortfall of around 40,000 workers. Local people have proved reluctant to sign up for the work, which is often described as difficult, dirty and dangerous.

Palm oil producers are now looking to prisons and drug rehabilitation centres for workers. Prison labour is easy to exploit and they have little room to reject the offer of work or access complaints mechanisms.

According to the UN’s International Labour Organization, if a company uses prison labour it must, “ensure that if a prisoner refuses the work offered there is no menace of any penalty”. But industry leaders have defended the plans, saying that prisoners will gain valuable training and skills to help them reintegrate into society.

Producers should focus on eradicating existing abuse in the industry, rather than trying to recruit from other vulnerable groups. Many of the workers are already victims of forced labour, a contemporary form of slavery. Workers on palm oil plantations have described abuses including passport confiscation, failure to provide work contracts, arbitrary fines and penalties, failure to pay the minimum wage, sexual harassment and physical threats and abuse by plantation managers. On Sunday a worker from Bangladesh died when he fell into a waste boiler at a palm oil mill, according to local media.

Palm oil fruit harvest, Malaysia. Photo by Craig Morey (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Source: The Guardian


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