Migrant workers in palm oil industry, pruning leaves and harvesting palm fruits. Image: IOM

Precarity in the Shadow of  Malaysia’s Oil Palm Trees

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What do you do here?” asked Johan.

I have nothing to do. Do you have a job opportunity for me?” Omes replied.

“You can come to Sabah. There’s a lot of work there.”

“Sure, I want to go there, but how?.”

“You come with me; I’ll bring you there.”

“What do I need to prepare?.”

“Bring some clothes and a little money. I’m going to Sabah in two weeks, so get ready.”

“Okay!”

This is how Omes recalled a conversation he had in mid-2006 with Johan, one of his relatives working in Sabah who was returning home. “I had just finished junior high school and was planning to enroll in senior high school”, Omes told me when I spoke to him in November 2022. “But that meeting encouraged me to drop out of school and decide to migrate to Sabah. I didn’t have any proper documents at that time. My relative told me that I didn’t need any, and I just followed him”, Omes said.

With no passport, no work visa and under the age of 17, Omes travelled by a ship from their village on Flores island in East Nusa Tenggara province to Nunukan, an island in North Kalimantan province, accompanied by Johan. Nunukan is one of Indonesia’s outermost islands, bordering the state of Sabah in East Malaysia. Omes stayed in Nunukan for a few days while he waited for Johan to organize the next trip.

One evening, they boarded a cramped speedboat with a dozen passengers, navigating silently through the strait and passing through the swamps to avoid routine Malaysian naval patrols. After about an hour’s sailing, the speedboat arrived at a location not far from Tawau, a port city on the east coast of Sabah. The passengers then boarded a minibus waiting near the pier and were taken to their respective destinations. Omes and Johan ended their journey at a palm oil plantation.

Migrant and migration

Omes is one of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Indonesians who have migrated to Sabah. Many children of his age also migrated from their home districts to Sabah without papers, invited by relatives or acquaintances. For context, Borneo (or Kalimantan) island is divided into three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. The discussion of borders in this article refers only to Indonesia and Malaysia. The Malaysian part of Borneo consists of two states, Sabah and Sarawak.

Migration to Sabah in large numbers is usually carried out by people from Sulawesi and East Nusa Tenggara Islands. They have a long history of migrating to Sabah, dating back to when this state was still a British colony. Migrants initially worked in plantations or colonial-owned businesses, then settled down and multiplied. A new wave of migrants, especially after the 1980s, worked in palm oil plantations, domestic work, and other sectors, meeting the demands of Sabah’s growing economy.

Additionally, there are migrants from the southern Philippines, including the Sulu and Bajau tribes (known as Sea Gypsies or Sea Nomads), who move back and forth to Sabah and the islands in Sulu and Celebes Seas, which are considered their indigenous territories.

Due to ongoing migration, the number of migrant and undocumented people in Sabah is significant. Out of a total population of 3.5 million in Sabah, some say the number of irregular migrants and undocumented people is between 1.1 million and 1.9 million. Others argue that one out of three people in Sabah is an undocumented (could be migrant, stateless, etc.).

The borders of Sabah and North Kalimantan more or less resemble those of the United States (US) and Mexico. The border line is quite long with one official border crossing, and dozens of unofficial border crossings. This is what border scholars call a porous border which allows people to cross the border irregularly. Along the 330-kilometre border line, the only official crossing points are Tunon Taka Port in Nunukan and the port in Tawau. In addition, there are dozens of ‘unofficial’ crossing points both by sea and land. On a daily basis, migrants cross this border and the majority of them do not have proper documents (passport and work visa). They come to find work or follow their families who have migrated before.

The engine that keeps undocumented or irregular migration going is the network of kinship and transporters. Kinship ties and ethnic brotherhood are the main support for migrants. They help each other, share information and invite those in the village to migrate, as in Omes’ case. Meanwhile transporters or organizers, known locally as pengurus consist of a network of people who transport undocumented migrants via clandestine routes. Pengurus provide shelters for migrants to stay for several days and boats for the crossing.

The authorities in both countries consider pengurus to be smugglers and could be involved in human trafficking. However, raids and arrests of undocumented migrants and pengurus are not taken seriously as a means of enforcing the law. From the stories I have heard from deported migrants, pengurus know when there will be immigration patrols and when it is safe to enter Sabah irregularly. It is suspected that there is an exchange of information and benefits between pengurus and the Malaysian and Indonesian immigration authorities. On several occasions, Indonesian immigration officials have arrested pengurus and confiscated their boats, only for them to resume their activities.

The cost of crossing the border using pengurus or clandestine routes is at least MYR 1,000 (EUR 200), eight times the cost of crossing the border through official channels, which is MYR130 (EUR 26). But for migrants, undocumented migration is the most feasible and easiest, as the process of applying for a passport in Indonesia and work visas in Malaysia is quite complicated, especially for prospective migrants who live in the islands far from the immigration office. Obtaining these documents costs a lot of money, which sometimes pulls prospective migrant workers into debt. In addition, for migrants, the undocumented route is a ‘safe route’ due to kinship ties. Migrants trust their relatives more than state authorities.

Some scholars discuss the concept of migration infrastructure, which consists of at least five dimensions: the commercial (recruitment intermediaries), the regulatory (state apparatus and procedures for documentation, licensing, training and other purposes), the technological (communication and transport), the humanitarian (NGOs and international organizations), and the social (migrant networks).

Following this concept, I argue that the migration infrastructure, especially the social dimension, between Sabah and South Sulawesi and East Nusatenggara is more established and solid, encouraging people to migrate there, despite migrants being aware of immigration raids. In my view, this well-established migration infrastructure creates a kind of mental map among migrant and prospective migrants that Sabah is not foreign territory. From my encounters, migrants exhibited greater familiarity with Sabah than with other regions such as cities in Java or neighboring provinces.

Working in palm oil plantations

Omes, now in his 40s, currently works at the Cendawan palm oil plantation. He has been a migrant worker in Sabah for 18 years, employed across on several plantations. Situated on the east coast, the Cendawan plantation spans approximately 2,000 hectares and is surrounded by plantations owned by major Malaysian palm oil companies such as Sime Darby, Felda Global Venture (FGV) and Sawit Kinabalu, alongside numerous small private plantations. In 2020, some of these large palm oil companies faced export bans to United States due to alleged child labour use.

Sabah ranks as Malaysia’s largest palm oil-producing state, followed by Sarawak, with the remainder produced by several states on the Malaysian peninsula. Malaysia itself stands as the world’s second-largest palm oil producer after neighboring Indonesia, with both countries accounting for 85 per cent of global palm oil exports in 2023.

Many migrant workers in Sabah are employed in the palm oil industry, though precise numbers are uncertain. There are at least two reasons why these workers prefer this sector. Firstly, Malaysian nationals are often reluctant to undertake labor-intensive roles in the vast palm oil plantations. Even when they do, they tend to opt for managerial positions or less physically demanding jobs, leaving jobs such as harvesting, fertilizer and pesticide spraying, and fruit picking to migrant workers, known for their willingness to tackle these ‘3D’ (dirty, difficult, and demeaning).

Secondly, palm oil plantations are like ‘kampongs’ (villages) for migrant workers. Most of the plantations are very remoted and isolated. Workers of similar ethnic backgrounds often reside together on the plantations. This gives migrant workers a sense of security, even though they are undocumented and vulnerable to immigration raids. They cannot live outside the plantations because they would have to pay rent while the plantations provide free housing.

The distance between plantations to local communities is usually quite long. In the plantation where Omes works, the distance to the local community is 15 kilometres on dirt roads. In essence, palm oil plantations serve as focal points where kinship ties and ethnic solidarity are prominently.

On paper, working hours on palm oil plantations are adhere to Malaysian regulations: 45 hours a week. Workers, especially harvesters, say they work 26 days a month. But in reality, however, working hours can be longer than 45 hours a week, especially during the peak harvesting season between September and October. Women primarily work as fertiliser and pest sprayers. While Men usually work as harvesters and as truck drivers transporting fresh fruit bunches. Some of these women I met while they were spraying pests were not wearing adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). They wore shoes and gloves, but not masks, aprons and eye protection. They said the PPE provided by the company was impractical and uncomfortable when working in the scorching heat.

Numerous studies have highlighted the risk of occupational disease for women in palm oil plantations who do not use adequate PPE. Workers told me at the time that they had no symptoms yet, but were worried about the effects of prolonged exposure to chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides.

The work targets of each job are different. Even each job done by men and women workers also has different work targets. Wages are paid based on work targets and outputs. In general, the wages for the types of work done by women workers are lower than the wages for the types of work done by men workers. Even among men workers, wages vary according to the target and yield of fresh fruit bunches. The majority of men workers in the Cendawan plantation are paid below the Malaysian minimum wage of MYR 1,500 (EUR 295) per month. Women workers earn less than MYR 1,000 per month.

Several migrant workers have said that the work system on palm oil plantations is set up to encourage workers to compete with each other for higher output. Palm oil is a highly engineered cash crop, with planting patterns and production system organized to ensure daily harvesting and timely delivery to market. Despite this, workers receive low wages each month. Consequently, many parents encourage their children to work to supplement family income. This is what signifies the main characteristic of the workforce on palm oil plantations: family workers, where mothers often work as sprayers and fertilizers, fathers as harvesters, and children as fruit pickers.

Living conditions

The contribution of migrant workers to the palm oil sector, and the Malaysian economy in general, is enormous. In October 2022, the New Straits Times reported a severe labor shortage in Malaysia’s palm oil sector for the third consecutive year. This shortage led to millions of tones of fresh fruit bunches rotting during peak harvesting seasons, including in Sabah, significantly impacting Malaysia’s palm oil exports. Some Malaysian companies have urged their government to lobby countries such as Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, to send more workers. But despite the need for migrant workers, the palm oil companies and the Malaysian government appear hypocritical in their reluctance to simplify employment and immigration procedures.

On the employment side, there is the unrealistic 8:1 ratio imposed by government which only allows one migrant worker to handle 8 hectares of palm oil land. The palm oil plantations in Sabah are huge with a a total planted area of more than 1.54 million hectares, requires a lot of labor. Giant palm oil companies like FGV, which regularly pass ‘sustainability’ assessments by brokers such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), recruit many undocumented workers to met their actual labor needs. Regarding immigration, migrant workers in the palm oil, construction, manufacturing and services (domestic work) sectors are only granted one-year visas, renewable for five years, and valid for one person only. They cannot bring their families with them.

While migrant workers in urban areas of Malaysia may manage to live without their families, this is not the case for workers on palm oil plantations due to their remote and isolated locations. Many workers live with their families on the plantations. Typically, male migrant workers first migrate alone, secure employment on the plantation, and then arrange for their families to join them in Sabah through undocumented channels. Moreover, the increasing migrant population in palm oil plantations allows migrant workers form families within the plantation community.

According to Cendawan workers, only 20 percent of the approximately 300 workers on the plantation have proper documentation, with more than half already married. The workers’ children and spouses are also undocumented. Omes has had papers on and off; he initially started working on the plantation without them. After a few years, the company assisted him in obtaining proper documentation. However, during the pandemic, Omes’ documents expired and had not yet been renewed. His wife and child also live on the Cendawan plantation without documentation.

While migrant workers contribute to Sabah’s economy, only citizens benefit from economic, health and education policies.

Families of migrant workers experience the high cost of basic necessities on the plantations because they have very limited opportunities to shop elsewhere. Prices tend to be twice as high as in the city. With inflation on the rise, spending is also higher, especially on food. An estimated cost of food per month for a family of four in urban Malaysia is MYR 1,400 (less than EUR 275). However, on palm oil plantations, a family of workers can spend much more than that.

In this environment, it is not easy for migrant workers to afford nutritious food. However, they manage their consumption by eating a lot of instant noodles and eggs: more carbohydrates and less protein and fiber. Going into debt is a common way of surviving. Workers borrow money from co-workers or from the grocery stores near the plantations to buy basic necessities. It is no exaggeration to say that the safety net on palm oil plantations is debt.

Regarding health, access to healthcare is made difficult and expensive. The cost of an outpatient visit to a general practitioner in a public hospital is approximately MYR 1 to MYR 10 for Malaysian citizens, but at least MYR 100 (EUR 20) for non-citizens. Many studies have shown that migrant workers pay twice as much for healthcare as Malaysian citizens. If they fall ill and need hospitalization, they have to pay a deposit of at least MYR 1,400 (less than EUR 275). Children of migrant workers are denied free vaccinations. A stark example of this was the polio outbreak in Sabah in 2019. A health expert argued that this outbreak “could be attributed to the lack of access to health care suffered by stateless, refugee and migrant children” and urged the government to provide free vaccinations to them.

Companies usually offer a health allowance, but the amount is small, such as FGV and Cendawan, which offer between MYR 200 and MYR 300 (less than EUR 59) per year for both documented and undocumented workers. This is for one worker only and usually covers only one visit to a clinic. If the migrant worker is sick and the health allowance is exhausted, they have to pay for their own medical treatment. The high cost of healthcare makes migrant workers and their families prefer ‘traditional medicine’. For example, the cost of giving birth in a hospital is at least MYR 2,593 (EUR 508). This does not include the deposit that must be paid in advance. Because of the high cost, pregnant workers choose to give birth on the plantations with the help of relatives, which only increases the risk of maternal and child mortality.

In terms of education, it is quite difficult for the children of migrant workers to get a proper formal education. Schools in Sabah have strict policies against accepting non-citizen children. Several schools for Indonesian children have been set up on plantations in Sabah (and also in Sarawak) in cooperation with the Indonesian embassy and palm oil companies. These schools, known as Community Learning Centres (CLCs), are located in Malaysian territory but teach the Indonesian curriculum.

CLCs provide primary and secondary education. Most of the teachers are recruited from Indonesia. There are also one or two Malaysian teachers who are asked to teach science and mathematics. The language of instruction in the CLCs is Indonesian, but outside of school, the students speak Malay (Indonesian and Malay are similar languages with less than 11 percent lexical differences).

CLCs only take Indonesian children, as evidenced by their parents’ identity and household membership document. Some undocumented parents have difficulty enrolling their children in CLCs because they cannot prove that they and their children are Indonesian – even if they speak Indonesian. Some studies explain that these schools lack teachers and students have low motivation to learn. Some parents also told me that the quality is not very good.

Several students I met could not read Malay or Indonesian language fluently, let alone do basic arithmetic, despite having attended primary school for three or four years. Many migrant workers send their children back to their villages in Indonesia to live and study with their grandparents. But there are also migrant workers who tell their children to leave school to help them; these children usually get married at the age of 16 or 17.

Fluidity of crossing the border and the labor control

Regarded as aliens and not wanting them to contaminate the citizen population, the Sabah authorities exercise strict control over this undocumented and migrant population. They are tried to be tamed so as not to demand the rights and facilities enjoyed by citizens. In the context of palm oil, migrant populations are strictly controlled to remain and reproduce within the plantations. There is a ‘unique’ situation here: migrant workers and their families are needed but they must be controlled so that they do not grow into a political force that threatens peace and order.

Raids, prisons, detention centres and deportations are the ultimate tools used by the Malaysian migration regime (police, army, military) to instill fear in the migrant population. In other words, this is part of labor control to ensure that palm oil production remains ‘sustainable’ and profitable. In porous borders such as Sabah and North Kalimantan, it is a common phenomenon for migrants to cross the border despite having been deported several times. Undocumented workers deported to Indonesia often return to Sabah because they have children and spouses living in the palm oil plantations. During detention and deportation, migrant families are cared for by extended families or ethnic brotherhoods.

In April 2022, in Nunukan, I spoke to Dimar, who had worked on a palm oil plantation in Sabah. Along with hundreds of others at the time, they had been held for months in several immigration detention centres in Sabah before being deported. Such prolonged detention has been widely criticised. The deportees were placed in a local government-run shelter for a few days before being repatriated to various regions in Indonesia that were considered their hometowns.

On the day of repatriation, Dimar and his friend escaped and made their way back to Sabah through undocumented routes. In fact, many undocumented workers have more experience of being deported and returning to Sabah. Some of deportees I met have been deported more than three times and continue to return to Sabah because they have family there. For them, Sabah is home. It is where they have worked and raised their families. Their journey back to Sabah is certainly supported by kinship networks. However, these migrant undocumented can only stay in plantations or in areas where undocumented migrants live, which give them a sense of security. It is very difficult for migrant workers to move from pockets of migrant population to live anywhere in Sabah as the risk of arrest is greater. 

In this context, undocumented migration are seen as a fluid flow amidst constraints and hardships.

Some scholars view the fluidity of migrants crossing the border as a form of resistance and an ability to outwit the control of authorities. To some extent, this is true. The network of pengurus is adept at transporting migrants across borders and to some extent negotiating with the authorities themselves. Pengurus know when there will be immigration patrols and when it is safe to enter Sabah irregularly. But I tend to see this as part of labour control because the migration regime in Malaysia will always ensure that these undocumented migrants end up on palm oil plantations or in pockets of already tamed migrant populations.

*A small part of this article was published on Migran Berdaulat, the website of Koalisi Buruh Migran Berdaulat (the Coalition of Sovereign Migrant Workers).

Alfian Al-Ayubby

Alfian Al-Ayubby is a writer and researcher based in Indonesia. His writings focus on migrant workers and labor movements in Southeast Asia. His other areas of interest include labor geography and global politics

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