A Malaysian plan to use prisoners as laborers at palm oil plantations has raised concerns about potential abuse and human rights violations, although proponents of the plan stress that prisoners will enjoy the same rights, benefits and wages as other workers.
“There have been a lot of claims about bonded labor and modern slavery in the industry, so we don’t want to end up with more such allegations,” said Sevan Doraisamy, executive director of the rights group Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram).
The idea of employing convicts from local prisons at palm oil plantations owned by the country’s influential business conglomerates has been proposed by Nageeb Wahab, chief executive of the Malaysian Palm Oil Association, who said that it would lessen Malaysia’s dependence of migrant workers from abroad.
“Our prisons are quite overwhelmed,” Nageeb said in a recent interview. “[Prisoners comprise] the target group that we’re looking at.”
Palm oil production is a key industry in Malaysia, which along with Indonesia produces the bulk of the global supply in the edible vegetable oil for use in a wide range of products from food items like crackers to soap, laundry detergent and cosmetics on sale in Europe and the United States.
The industry is a major employer in the country, yet as a result of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which has restricted the movement of foreign workers, it is facing severe labor shortages.
“Whatever incentives are given to hire foreigners should be given to them [prison laborers],” said Ahmad Parveez Ghulam Kadir, director-general of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, an influential industry body.
“Annual levy, return ticket and other fees — all the things that are paid to foreign workers should be given to these prisoners as an incentive.”
Labor rights advocates have warned, however, of the danger of forced labor among convicts. Several of Malaysia’s leading oil palm growers have for years been accused of “exploitative” labor practices and violating the rights of foreign migrant workers.
In 2015, an investigation by the Wall Street Journal found that migrant workers endured routine abuse and constant overwork at Malaysian plantations, which produce 40 percent of the global supply of palm oil. Some foreign laborers even alleged that they were treated no better than slaves. “They buy and sell us like cattle,” a Bangladeshi worker told the US newspaper.
Migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar said they had been forced into debt bondage and were required to work seven days a week without pay for months. They also had to spray toxic chemicals to kill weeds and insects without protective gear, endangering their health. If they tried to escape, they would be arrested by police and brought back to the farms.
“If I had known what was waiting, I would never have left home,” one young Bangladeshi migrant worker told the newspaper.
In response to these allegations and the ensuing public outcry, Malaysian conglomerates and industry bodies promised to investigate alleged cases of labor abuse. Five years later, however, the industry continues to face frequent allegations of rights violations.
In July, the anti-trafficking organization Liberty Shared filed a petition in the United States against Sime Darby Plantation Berhad (SDP), one of the world’s largest suppliers, after evidence had emerged that the Malaysia-based company had been engaged in child labor and forced labor on its plantations.
The company, which supplies palm oil to several leading multinationals such as Switzerland-based Nestle, said it would look into the allegations.
“SDP is committed to eradicating any and all instances of human rights infringements within our operations and supply chain,” it said in a press release. “If there is cause, we will immediately institute appropriate corrective actions to secure the well-being of all our employees.”