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Experts back 15-year work permits for skilled palm harvesters
Published on: Thursday, January 18, 2024
By: David Pillai, FMT
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Experts back 15-year work permits for skilled palm harvesters
Former Sabah chief minister Harris Salleh expects an outflow of foreign workers from Sabah as Indonesia’s new capital, Nusantara, has plans for an additional five million hectares of oil palm estate.
PETALING JAYA: Agriculture experts have welcomed a recent call by former Sabah chief minister Harris Salleh for Putrajaya to consider revising the policy for the duration of foreign worker permits from one to 15 years.

Noting that harvesting fresh fruit bunches of oil palm is a skilled task, Glenauk Economics managing director Julian McGill told FMT the palm oil industry would welcome the permit extension.

McGill said retaining these harvesters would benefit planters and improve productivity, in turn supporting the Malaysian economy and its tax revenues.

According to Sabah news portal Daily Express, Harris had written to Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim urging the government to consider his proposal over the present policy, which requires foreign workers to renew their permits annually.

Segi Enam Advisors senior economist Khor Yu Leng said the proposed upgrade to provide foreign workers in Sabah with more incentives came with the rising recognition that many are skilled.

However, citing socio-political concerns, Khor said an extension would have to come with a family-based approach.

According to data from the statistics department, over 20% (736,000) of Sabah’s 3.4 million population in 2022 were non-citizens, of whom 178,000 were below the age of 15.

Khor told FMT that 15-year work permits should come with clarity on how the workers’ children would gain proper access to education and healthcare.

“The state may also have to collect a levy on labour to cover the costs for these basic rights,” she said, welcoming the former chief minister’s idea of a provident fund as well.

Harris had proposed the establishment of a provident fund for foreign workers alongside their EPF savings to safeguard their financial future, which would facilitate their return to their home countries after their tenures.

“It is important to note that granting a 15-year work permit does not automatically confer citizenship, but offers employers and employees assurance (of continued manpower),” Harris said.

Adding that Nusantara’s population is expected to reach 50 million by 2030, Harris said its plan to add five million hectares of oil palm estate meant it would be looking to hire experienced Indonesian workers presently working in Sabah.

“This is why it is important to keep these workers in Sabah by extending their work permits to 15 years,” he said.

On a separate note, Khor said there seemed to be a tacit view that large-scale mechanisation was not coming any time soon for harvesting fresh fruit bunches, a key role in the oil palm industry.

In 2023, Sabah contributed a quarter of Malaysia’s palm oil production.

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