PETALING JAYA: Experts have called for proper measures to be put in place to prevent abuse in case palm oil growers are allowed to use prison labour as proposed recently.
“There should not be any discrimination in respect of labour rights. Otherwise, we will be seen as promoting slavery and forced labour,” said Malaysian Trades Union Congress secretary-general J Solomon.
Rights group Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) said that prisoners fall under the same laws —and enjoy the same labour rights and minimum wage guarantees — as other workers when they are part of the labour force.
Suaram executive director Sevan Doraisamy said “there have been a lot of claims about bonded labour and modern slavery in the industry, so we don’t want to end up with more such allegations.”
Prisoners should be insured, and there should be clear provisions in their contract which outline liability issues should they be faced with injury or other occupational safety hazards.
Malaysian Palm Oil Board director-general Ahmad Parveez Ghulam Kadir said that bringing prisoners into the sector would be a “win-win situation”.
Not only would it lessen the country’s reliance on foreign labour, it would also provide the convicts with working experience which will put them in good stead once they are released, he said.
The proposal to employ prison labour had come from Malaysian Palm Oil Association chief executive Nageeb Wahab in a recent media interview.
Nageeb said the association’s “target group” was the thousands of people who have been locked up for small offences.
He said palm growers had employed prisoners since 2016, but the search had now been intensified because of a labour shortage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
While the use of prison labour is allowed by the International Labour Organization, there are strict conditions that have to be met and it is vital that their participation is on an optional basis.
Ahmad Parveez said employers were obliged to provide the workers with insurance, as they are exposed to “certain risks” while working in the plantations.
“In fact, whatever incentives are given to hire foreigners should be given to them (prison labour),” said Ahmad. “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”.
They could also continue working even after their jail term ends, he said, which would solve one of the problems faced by ex-convicts.