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Retrenched rubber tappers demand compensation

(Updated )

G Velaitham, 45, has lived and worked in a rubber plantation for the last three decades, so losing his job three years meant ago meant that his life was turned upside down.

''The company says we are too old for the job, they only want young men. Empty the house in three months, that's what is stated in their letter. Where can we go?'' said Velaitham, a plantation contract worker since he was 14 at the Changkat Salak estate in Malaysia's north-western state of Perak.

He is among seven families facing eviction from their homes on plantation estates in Perak, the latest in a growing group of rubber tapping communities to lose their jobs and homes as firms shift from rubber to oil palm cultivation.

The workers from Changkat Salak as well as Kamiri estates say they will fight the latest court ordered eviction notice, issued in late July.

Sacked three years ago, the retrenched workers comprise a group of about 20 families from the two estates who are asking their former employer to provide them with adequate compensation, housing or alternative work.

Spurred by falling commodity prices and rising production costs, Malaysian rubber producers have since the 1990s begun to convert to more profitable oil palm cultivation, or sold their estates to property developers, leaving thousands of rubber tapping communities in the lurch.

The plight of the Perak families is one more sign of this trend, as the number of workers on rubber estates continues to fall. From 1982 to 1992 alone, for instance, their numbers fell by more than 40 percent.

Worse still, loss of employment on plantations is accompanied by eviction from the homes on the estates where workers' families have lived for generations.

Young workers are able to make the transition to the new crop, which is one of Malaysia's key exports, but women and old men are left behind, as oil palm cultivation requires more strength but fewer specialised skills.

And while existing workers are offered accommodation on the estates, retrenched, retired or inefficient workers are expected to move on. Many displaced workers, according to previous media reports, are unable to find work and end up in slum areas.

Legal battle

But the families in Perak state have refused to leave quietly, and are demanding that their former employer, the state-owned plantation giant, Guthrie, offer them a better deal than they are now getting.

This has prompted Guthrie to launch a legal battle to enforce the evictions, which is currently working its way through Malaysia's court system.

Meanwhile the sacked workers' meagre compensation payouts, the maximum being of around RM12,000 ringgit, are running out.

Critics say that firms like Guthrie make huge profits from developing estate land, but that emerging pattern over the years is that none or insufficient provision is being made for housing displaced communities.

A government member of the Perak state legislature's executive committee, G Rajoo, said he had written to Guthrie about the plight of the families on the Kamiri estate. But he received no response.

"The government cannot force (the companies). This is a private company. We can only advise them. If there is government land near the estate, we will build houses for the workers. If the company does not do it, we will," he said.

Guthrie, which owns the Changkat Salak and the Kamiri estates, is one of Malaysia's largest and most successful plantation firms. In 2001 the group secured a healthy profit, even though its core business — plantation — recorded losses of up to RM70.3 million.

Its 186-page annual report showed that most operations like manufacturing, quarrying and overseas trading suffered significant losses. Nevertheless, the balance sheet went into the positive due to the sale of its estates to housing developers.

For instance, the sale of the Bukit Tinggi estate in Selangor state, hard hit by the closure of plantations affected by the rubber industry's downturn, contributed to the group's pre-tax profits.

But there, the retrenched workers are refusing to move and could be evicted at any time. They say they have not been offered houses from the low-cost housing project that will replace their homes.

Guthrie's plantation director, Haji Abu Hanipah Abdul Wahid, said the firm has provided low-cost housing for ex-workers in three estates in the past, but the workers rejected the offer.

"It's difficult. They did not want it. Now, we do not want to do it (build houses)," he said in an interview.

Government-backed corporate direction

Retrenched workers say they are also up against government-backed corporate direction, as the Malaysian government indirectly has controlling stakes in the nation's major plantation companies.

For example, Guthrie's major shareholders are government agencies and statutory bodies including Permodalan Nasional Berhad, an investment arm of the government and the Employees Provident Fund, which manages a compulsory pension scheme.

Plantation workers are among the poorest paid in Malaysia, but here too the government has also been unwilling to step in. Despite its direct interest, the government failed in its intervention into negotiations to replace a daily wage with a minimum monthly wage of RM350.

The dispute will be heard in the Industrial Court in October. Yet, even if it is successful, this still leaves the workers with a minimum income below the national poverty line of RM510 for Peninsular Malaysia.

Guthrie says that switching to oil palm is actually a golden opportunity for rubber tapping communities to move onto a higher wage bracket.

The most a rubber tapper can earn is about RM500 per month, said Abu Hanipah. "Oil palm can go as high as RM1,000, that is a 100 percent increase. It is worthwhile for the workers to change to oil palm," he added.

In April, S Munusamy, who had worked on the Kamiri estate for 25 years, visited Guthrie headquarters in Kuala Lumpur along with about 200 ex-workers to deliver a memorandum airing their grievances.

After waiting three hours, Guthrie management accepted their memorandum but refused to meet with them or set up a date for a meeting.

Said Munusamy: ''We have worked hard to bring Guthrie to the top — not the CEO — but they do not even look at us now.'' — IPS

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