The use of prison labor comes with a lot of controversy, yet in Malaysia they see it as one of the only solutions to help with their labor shortage in the palm sector, a recent article of Bloomberg writes.
The industry tried incentives like free housing, electricity and social amenities, but locals were not interested in the labor intensive, yet also described as “dirty, difficult, and dangerous,” process of harvesting palm fruit, pushing the industry to employ migrant workers from countries such Indonesia, Bangladesh, and India (the industry's dependence on foreign labor is appr. 80%).
However, due to COVID and the lockdown policies in place, travel is restricted in many of the parts of the region and with the Malaysian government also looking to cut back hiring of migrant workers, palm growers feel they are left with little choice.
It seems producers are mainly looking for prisoners with small offenses. Another area that is being looked at by the industry is hiring from drug rehabilitation centers.
While often it is claimed that foreigners “steal” the jobs of locals, this is not per se the case, as this is most certainly not the first time I have heard of challenges experienced finding locals to fill the jobs, yet good due diligence programs are critical when hiring a large migrant work-force or any other vulnerable group such as the ones looked at by this industry currently due to the high risk for exploitation.
Malaysian palm growers have employed prisoners since 2016, Nageeb said, but the search is intensifying as the coronavirus exacerbates the labor shortage. Malaysia, the biggest grower after Indonesia, was already short of about 36,000 workers before the pandemic, he said. Now that’s risen significantly, which means the country may see up to a 30% loss in potential output.