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'It's a Form of Slavery'

The suffering classes -- plantation workers
Asia Week.

THOUGH PRIME MINISTER MAHATHIR Mohamad is weaning his country's booming economy from agriculture to manufacturing, historical core commodities like rubber, palm oil and timber still swell the treasury and keep the plantation companies happy. In 1995, Malaysia had a trade surplus of $1.3 billion on rubber goods, and its yield of 7.8 million tons of palm oil was worth nearly four times as much. Megabucks. So the people bringing in this golden harvest must be living pretty good, right?

Not so. Malaysia's plantation workers -- over half of whom are ethnic Indian -- are its most abject citizens. Their wages are pitiful, their housing wretched, their children's education lacking and their health care negligible. Recently, the Malaysian Medical As-sociation (MMA) said that it is "deeply concerned at the deplorable state of health care in plantations," where most workers live with their families. The MMA has urged a campaign for change so that "the plantation population of more than 1 million people will be integrated into the mainstream of national development and health care." Presently, they are firmly outside it.

Rubber tappers, for example, collect latex from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. They must spend not more than 30 seconds to tap a tree if they are to meet their 11 kg minimum quota. Notes social activist S. Arut-chelvan: "It's a skilled job. If you cut more than the bark you can damage the tree." Yet for such delicate work, the tapper gets just over $4 a day, plus extra for each kilo of latex above the minimum. If it rains, the laborers can't work, making less. The minuscule day-rate upsets activists. Says a former MMA president, Dr. R.S. McCoy: "It's a form of slavery."

There's worse news. Many of the workers are women, especially the rubber tappers, and this means they have little time to look after their children. Some plantations have cr`eches, some good, most not. Almost everyone concedes estate kids get a poor education. And while workers and their families have access to clinics, it doesn't guarantee them health care. "Some managers don't allow the workers to go for treatment," observes M. Mahalingam of the health ministry. "If they go without permission, they lose their wages."

What do the workers want? Basically, 24-hour water and electricity supply, proper medical care and education for their kids, decent living conditions, and a fair wage. Says Arutchelvan: "They want the daily rate replaced by a fixed monthly wage, and they want an annual increase, an annual bonus and retirement benefits."

What are the politicians doing? Some note that since the average monthly household income for plantation workers is about twice the poverty level of $150, the problem is not so urgent. Most are concerned and sympathetic, but put the onus on the owners. Says McCoy: "They say the estates are private land, so they can't act. But abuses and crimes take place in private homes, and they act. It's ridiculous." Political focus is elsewhere, on fast economic development and the thrust away from commodities to manufacturing.

The government also seems to think the problem might go away by itself. Malaysian estate workers are moving to urban factories and being replaced by foreign labor, mostly from Bangladesh and Indonesia. On some plantations, they already make up half the workers. "As time goes by, Malaysians will no longer work in the estates," says Mahalingam. "I'm very happy about that." But for those Malaysians -- as well as foreigners -- whose lives remain tied to the plantations, that sentiment is scant compensation.

-- By Roger Mitton / Kuala Lumpur

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