LAHAD DATU: It used to take up to two days, sometimes longer, plus layers of approval for oil palm plantation worker Kadir Muda to get his Indonesian passport from the safekeeping of his employer before travelling to Lahad Datu town and other places.
Today, Kadir simply gets a leave form signed and heads straight to the Passport Room at Sabahmas Plantations to show it to a staff on duty before retrieving his passport from a metal locker, using a key that is kept by him. Once workers are familiar with the process of retrieving their passports, there will no longer be a staff member on duty in the Passport Room.
“We can collect our passports even after office hours and we also can keep other important documents in the locker. Holding the key to my own locker gives me a sense of security,” said Kadir who is the head of a group of workers.
Recognising that passport retention could be an indicator of forced labour by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Wilmar International Limited (Wilmar) returned passports to all migrant workers in their Malaysian plantations by installing 10,000 easy-to-access lockers. The company is one of the first oil palm plantation companies to complete the process in Malaysia, with a total of 9,466 lockers now in use.
Perpetua George, Wilmar’s Group Sustainability General Manager, explained that passport retention of foreign workers is a common practice across Malaysia, not only in the oil palm sector. When Wilmar committed to the No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation (NDPE) policy in 2013, it decided to return passports to workers despite an initial concern of workers absconding.
“The welfare of our workers is important to us as they form the backbone of our plantation operations. We see a higher level of trust between the company and workers as a result of this passport return initiative. We also received very good feedback on the locker system as the workers feel more secure with a safe place to keep their important documents.
“We have shown that it is possible to take positive steps towards human rights and labour rights improvements,” said Perpetua at the official handover of locker keys to workers at Sabahmas Plantations, about an hour from here, on March 13, 2018.
She added that the company will continuously make other improvements in best practices such as ensuring comfortable housing and education for children of foreign workers.
Outside of its own operations, Wilmar is also working with its suppliers on respecting the rights of workers and encouraging passport return in line with its NDPE policy. It is supporting this transformation at a few small and medium-sized mills in Peninsular Malaysia, who have agreed to return passports to their foreign workers through a locker system, with one company having rolled out the programme in its Johor operations.
Kiaw Che Weng, Wilmar’s Sabah Operations General Manager, explained that a small pilot project was carried out in Sabah with 10 workers using wooden lockers in 2016. It proved the viability of the system and led to the redesign and production of metal lockers.
“Through Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification, we have been guided on improvements and this has included better security at our plantations. This is one of the factors that has made it possible to create a locker system.
“We have a high employee retention rate at our plantations as our workers feel secure and their needs such as housing, medical and fair pay are met. Now that there is increased freedom of movement, we have built another layer of trust,” Kiaw said, adding that the cost of the initiative was approximately RM 26 per locker, or RM260,000 in total.
Bapak Sulistijo Djati Ismojo, Chief of the Indonesian Consul-General’s Office in Tawau, who officiated the handover event said he was pleased to note that Wilmar had taken a step to further respect human rights and address the needs of its migrant workers.
“As the pioneer of this effort, there is no issue of forcibly retaining passports of Indonesian workers in Malaysia at Wilmar’s estates. I hope that other companies will emulate the efforts taken by Wilmar as this will also improve the relationship between workers and their employers,” he said.
In addressing some 50 workers who were present, Sulistijo reminded them to be responsible in taking care of the keys allocated to them and their passports, and to abide by regulations that have been set out.
He also said that Indonesian workers must uphold the principles of respect and honour while working in Malaysia, and to bring up to the management should they have any grievances rather than trying to resolve issues on their own.
Wilmar operates nine mills at a range of estates at its Malaysian operations in Sabah and Sarawak.