The Human Resources Minister Datuk S. Subramaniam said that he wants to make living and working in plantation as attractive as possible in order to attract Malaysians to work in estates. I always feel that the most neglected segment of the working community in Malaysia are:
2) Estate workers
3) Certain selected service sectors like waiters and waitresses
In the early 70s, living condition in the estate would be the envy of many people. It has its own housing quarters, electricity supply ‘for limited hours’, water supply, schools within its vicinity, temples, mosques and kuils and healthcare provided by the estate clinic. Foreign workers were unheard of. There are also provision shops run by the Chinese. In short, it was a self-substaining community. Estate managers then would go around their estates so that any complain can be handled personally. I used to be a visiting medical officer to a rubber estate and also a pineapple estate in Johor for many years.
Over the years, there have been rapid developments in the country, both in infrastructure and public amenities. However, the estates under private management have not kept up with the pace of development in the country. Most labour quarters are today in a dilapidated condition. The health clinic provides only very basic healthcare.
Today, most estate workers would avail themselves of the health clinic run by MOH. Most of the Tamil schools or Chinese schools are under-enrolled and basic conditions of the classrooms are much to be desired. Since estate land are privately owned, they are not given allocation by the government for improvement of infrastructure. We have a new breed of estate manager who may be better educated but often more aloof. The management often adopts the attitude that they are the boss and the manager at the estate level is only a representative of the establishment. Even very basic matter needs to be referred to the headquarters.
My personal experience in dealing with estate management has been one of frustration and disappointment. My former constituency, both at state and parliament level have estates with substantial numbers of Malaysian workers. Of course over the years, I can see that their numbers are gradually replaced by foreigners - Indonesians and Southern Indians. Generally, since conditions in estate has not improved in the last 30 years while the country has moved on, any abled-bodied Malaysians would choose jobs in estates when there is no other choice. The basic salary has not increased very much over the years. Even when the prices of commodity were at its highest level, the estate workers do not benefited very much in terms of better pay and better working conditions. Most estate management do not make any attempt to improve the quarters and the health clinics.
As a wakil rakyat, it is common that I have to give allocations yearly to the estate workers, mostly to repair their places of worship and also grants to the schools for basic facilities like buying books. The management will not entertain even small allocations to help to repair places of worship and schools even though they are situated within the estates. They feel that this is the responsibility of the government.
If we want to improve the living condition in the estate, we need the cooperation of the estate management. The government needs to use the big stick:
1) The time has come for the implementation of basic minimum wage for estate workers. Even in time of recession, public listed plantation companies do not lose money. In boom time, when they make super profit, the benefits to its workers is minimum. Hence, beside the basic pay, there should be an incentive allowance, which is tied to the productivity of the worker and the prices of the commodity. Most estate workers, even in boom time in 2006 and 2007 do not earn more than RM1,200. Most Malaysians today would not work in an estate with a remuneration of RM1,200.
2) The estate management must be compelled to improve the quarters (what they call the labour line within the estate), improve health condition, water and electricity supply. Provisions must be made to carry their estate workers’ children to school. The lack of public transportation within the estate is a big obstacle to the children going to schools.
3) The labour union representing the estate workers should show more democracy and transparency in dealing with the management of workers. There should be more discussion with the workers when the union signed any agreement with estate management since the agreement is binding on workers.
I would not agree that government should give peruntukan for the upgrading of the amenities in the estates as suggested by Datuk S. Subramaniam. Most of the bigger estates in this country have market value of billions and there is no reason for the government to subsidize them. We have to bear in mind that in bad times, estates still make money. Money given to the estate for upgrading of infrastructure should be given to rural areas and new villages. The management of the estate should bear the burden of improving the infrastructure within the estate.