Today (30/4), a day before International Labor Day that falls on May 1, 2018, a number of activists in the plantation sector are calling on the government to provide more attention on legal protection to palm oil workers, the country’s largest foreign exchange earner.

“There is a need for a regulation that can accommodate the aspiration of workers and provide them with protection,” Palm Oil Farmers Union (SPKS) Advocacy Department Head Marselinus Andry told the Palm Scribe.

According to Andry, the majority of palm oil farmers in Indonesia are independent smallholders and they are often treated by large palm oil companies as workers, and not as equal partners.

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Although palm oil is the country’s largest earner, the small farmers still receive low wages, arbitrary and bad treatment, and in many cases, especially for hired day laborers, no contracts.

There is no certainty on the number of palm oil workers in Indonesia, but the Coalition of Indonesian Civil Society for Solidarity for Palm Oil Plantation Workers last year recorded the number at 16 million. The Indonesian Plantation Workers Union (Serbundo) put the figure at 11 million, 70% of which were hired on a daily basis.

SPKS, according to Andry, is also calling for the companies to work in close partnership with the palm oil workers. No companies should feel superior to the workers. “The companies and the workers need to be responsible and play their roles well,” he said.

Meanwhile, Serbundo Secretary General Natal Sidabutar said that the government should come out with a special regulation to protect palm oil workers. “This special regulation is necessary to arrange various matters pertaining to plantation workers, including wages, workers’ rights, health and other social benefits, work equipment, and many others,” Sidabutar told the Palm Scribe.

According to Sidabutar that there are still many practices that exploit workers in palm oil plantations, such as inhuman targets, low wages unilaterally set by companies, inappropriate work conditions, inadequate equipment and precarious work.

“Even the government’s wage system, as stated in a Minister of Manpower and Transmigration Regulation No. 13 of 2012 on Components and Implementation Phases Living Needs Achievement, is based on the fact that everyone needs a daily intake of 3,000 kilocalories. We all know that farmers, especially in palm oil plantations, need much more than that in a day,” Sidabutar said.

Palm oil workers walk around five to seven hectares of plantation in a day and carry heavy fruit bunches. Such hard work needs plenty of energy–up to three times the 3,000 kilocalories a day used in the government regulation calculation on fair living costs. Sidabutar also added that workers rarely get transport allowance.

“What we also want to ask the government is for Regulation No. 21 of 2000 about workers union to be well implemented because the reality is totally different from the expectation. Workers often have their rights muzzled, they are often hindered,” he said.

The Coalition of Indonesian Palm Oil Workers gathers workers union and civilian societies linked to the sector to demand protection provision to palm oil workers.

In a recent discussion ahead of May Day, the coalition, according to Sidabutar, called on the government “to respect, protect and fulfill the basic rights of palm oil plantation workers through the issuance of special regulations for palm oil plantation workers.”

The organization also asked that the government ratify the ILO Plantation Convention No. 110 of 1958 and ILO Safety and Health in Agriculture Convention No. 184 of 2001.

The conventions cover the recruitment and engagement of migrant workers and afford protection to plantation workers in respect of employment contracts, wages, working time, medical care, maternity protection, employment accident compensation, freedom of association, labor inspection, and housing.

The coalition also demanded the government enforce the law and take firm actions against companies that violate the palm oil workers’ rights.

Palm oil and its derivatives contribute significant foreign exchange earnings and government revenues. Palm oil exports in 2017 contributed $23 billion–a 26% increase compared to the previous year’s, according to the Indonesian Association of Palm Oil Producers.

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