10.08.2018 (The Borneo Post) - BINTULU: Given the lack of interest among locals to work in the plantation sector and the difficulty in employing foreign workers in the near future, the way forward for the plantation sector is to accelerate efforts in adoption of mechanisation.
“We cannot afford to see the industry evolve itself to resolve these issues. We need to have a strong determination and resolve to overcome these challenges in the interest of all stakeholders,” said Deputy Chief Minister and Minister of Modernisation of Agriculture, Native Land and Regional Development Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah Embas.
He thus urged industry players to constantly adopt new innovations, improve current practices, formulate new strategies and implement the necessary actions to remain globally competitive.
“The level of mechanisation and automation especially in the upstream sector to reduce labour dependency is still low and this is of concern to us, as stakeholders.
“Of course, some mechanisation such as mini-tractors, mini-tractor grabber, bin systems and other machines have been used in their in-field operations, but with limited usage and efficiency.
“Perhaps it is time the industry explore the possibility of introducing new and latest technologies such as those created in the field of robotics to enhance productivity, improve safety and reduce costs,” he said when officiating at the opening of the 9th Malaysia International Palm Oil and Agriculture Equipment Technology Conference and Borneo International Oil and Gas Energy Expo 2018 here yesterday.
Uggah said he was made to understand that drones have been used in some segments of operations such as monitoring the growth of palms.
However, he pointed out that the research and development (R&D) in robotics and artificial intelligence technologies could provide the opportunity to develop a complete range of new agricultural equipment based on smart machines.
Towards this end, he said his ministry had some discussions with higher learning institutions and private sector corporations to pool their knowledge and resources to explore ways to develop fresh fruit bunch (FFB) harvesting machines such as using laser cutting and water-jet technologies.
“With such successful invention, not only the plantation sector will benefit in terms of higher productivity, but the government will also gain in terms of reduction of foreign currency exchange outflow.
“As of now, a monthly average of RM60 million is remitted by foreign workers to their countries of origin,” said Uggah, whose text of speech was read by Assistant Minister of Native Land Development Datuk Roland Sagah.
Uggah believes that in the long run, mechanisation process will be a practical solution to reduce high dependency on foreign labour, thus a strong commitment by the top management is a prerequisite for a successful mechanisation programme in the plantation sector.
The oil palm industry in Sarawak is highly dependent on foreign labour for harvesting, general upkeep and maintenance.
Uggah disclosed that as at June this year, the plantation sector employed a total of 99,996 workers in various categories of work, of which 79,279 or 79.3 per cent are foreigners while the locals make up the rest which includes those from Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah.
Based on land-labour ratio of 12.24:1 for field workers, the plantation sector requires 127,110 workers but currently employs 88,139 field workers, a shortfall of 38,971 workers.
He said this shortage of field workers has resulted in huge revenue losses of about
RM2.45 billion in 2017 due to FFB not harvested and fruits left to rot on the field because of longer harvesting rounds.
Uggah said the high reliance on foreign labour poses difficulties as the source of foreign labour declines in the future.
Currently, the only source of foreign workers is Indonesia where supply is getting scarce.
Furthermore, Uggah added, Indonesia will not continue to fulfil the needs of the industry for reliable workforce as their own plantation industry is experiencing rapid growth and expansion.
“As a result of such development, the supply of workers from Indonesia will decline and will certainly impact plantation sector in Sarawak.
“In this regard, the government has introduced a number of measures, which includes mechanisation and training programmes to attract locals to work in estates, he added.