Chapter 4 - Other Unpleasant Episodes

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2.    Employment Of Foreign Workers

When our plantation was leased to the two farmers to cultivate fruits for three years from July 2001 to June 2004, we did not have to employ any workers to work in our plantation. This was because the farmers were required under the lease to maintain the plantation free from weeds and they also had to provide workers occasionally required to apply fertilizers to the young palms.


But in late 2002 when Farmer Goh started to neglect looking after the water melon farming in our plantation, I began to feel the need to employ our own workers to work in our plantation. At that time, I knew a friend from JKR’s days (James) who now operated a foreign-labour recruitment agency in Selangor. Through him I submitted our application at the end of November 2002 to recruit three foreign workers under the name of Fu Quan Estate Sdn. Bhd., a company I set up with my second brother to manage the plantation.


In April 2003, our application for employing foreign workers was approved. However during that period of time, there were some foreign workers, all Indonesians with proper documents and  forsaken by Farmer Goh, loitering around a shop, Ban Guan where his father was one of the proprietors and from where I purchased the fertilizers for our young palms. When approached, Farmer Goh’s father told me that I could hire from him some of his foreign workers for our plantation. Three workers were selected and after signing a simple agreement, they were relocated in our plantation towards the end of April 2003. Though we had obtained approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs to recruit three workers from overseas, I thought it would be more prudent to hire those who were readily available and had experience working in the same plantation. With this recruitment, our approval from the Ministry of Home affairs was kept in limbo.


The three workers were paid based on a daily wage of RM16.00 only! They were housed in an old shack near the old workers’ quarters which I had engaged a local contractor to relocate it closer to the main road, in a location which I initially wanted to build my timber house. As they had once worked in this plantation, planting water melons for Farmer Goh, they quickly settled down and started clearing the areas abandoned by Farmer Goh.


To control the growth of weeds, I intended to grow legume cover crops in the inter-row areas of the young plants. The workers, after clearing the land, were engaged in sowing the seeds. The seeds for the legume covers were bought from Sime Darby through my nephew. The leguminous seeds bought were P. javanica, C. mucunoides, and C. caeruleum. But it took more than a couple of months for the seeds to germinate even though the prevailing weather then was wet. I thought this could be due to the presence of excessive residues of harmful chemicals in the soil used by Farmer Goh.     


Not long after the three foreign workers had settled down, I began to notice that when I was in the plantation in the evening many other foreign workers were seen hanging around the shack with our workers.  I also noticed that there were many mats littered inside the shack and some were found in the isolated area of the plantation. I questioned our workers and they confessed that they were illegal immigrants working for other farmers nearby and they were also their friends. But they slept at various locations in the plantation and not in the shack during the night to avoid arrest by the local authorities. The only thing I and my supervisor, Kim Tong could do was to ask our workers to tell their friends to go somewhere else. But we could not monitor the situation as we did not stay overnight in the plantation.


By end of August 2003, the relocation of the workers’ quarters was completed and furnished with all the basic amenities. Our three workers moved in to stay. Also my steel cabin was installed and fully equipped. So whenever I went to the plantation I would put up a night or two in the cabin. However, whenever I was there I could still notice that there were many illegal immigrants residing in our plantation. But if I were to put up a night in my cabin they would make themselves scarce. Not long after settling in the new quarters, two of my foreign workers disappeared without given any notice. I reported to Farmer Goh’s father who told me that they had gone to work illegally with another farmer nearby because they could not get along with the other worker called Chin who I found to be a very capable worker but a loner and very hot-tempered.


Our oil palm trees were now over two years old and soon I had to plan for the harvesting of fruits. And I intended to get my own workers to do the work. From what I had experienced, I was very convinced that getting Indonesian workers would not be suitable because there were many of them around our area without work permits and they would try to exert bad influence on our legal workers. I decided that workers from Nepal would be ideal. I went trekking in Nepal in 2001 and was very impressed with the Nepalese porters who would carry over 25kg packs with a strap over their foreheads and trekking up the mountains faster than all of us who only carried a light day-pack.


Our approved permit to recruit three foreign workers would expire on 31st October 2003. By the time I had decided to recruit our own immigrant workers, there was insufficient time left to do the necessaries. So I told James to apply for an extension of our approved permit. At end of January, an extension of six months was granted and the permit would now expire by the end of April 2004.


I first contacted my mountain trekking agent in Katmandu to look for suitable candidates up in the mountains, like some of his porters, to work in our plantation and also I told him that I was prepared to pay more for a Gurkhas if available. His subsequent reply to me was most shocking. He told me that all Nepalese were not prepared to work in plantations in Malaysia because of snakes! As far as I was aware, I had not seen one in my plantation ever since I was involved.   


After this, I approached James to use his contacts in Nepal to look for three suitable candidates who were prepared to work in our plantation. In March 2004, three names were submitted to me through a recruiting agent in Katmandu. They were working in farms in Nepal. Before I gave my consent to recruit them, I intended to interview them at their places of work. So in early April, I made all the necessary arrangements to go to Nepal and I contacted my trekking and recruiting agents, both in Katmandu of my coming visit. A day before my departure for Katmandu the media reported that Maoists would impose another curfew in Katmandu on the day of my arrival, i.e. 6th April. Without any choice, I had to cancel my trip to Katmandu and also to forgo the opportunity to recruit any foreign workers using the extended permit.


By April 04, though the palms were short of three years old, there were already some ripening oil palm fruits to be harvested. As we had only one immigrant worker left, I had no choice but to recruit a Contractor to harvest the fruits. But unfortunately I had to remove him from the plantation because he was not able to perform satisfactory. Left with no choice, I asked Chin to enquire from his friends who had experience in harvesting oil palm fruits so that I could employ a couple to do the job in our plantation. He found two and, though without legal documentation, they were taken in to work in our plantation on a monthly basis with a daily pay of RM20.00. Our first harvest started after the first week of May and the three workers, including Chin, took four days to complete the job. I decided to sell the fruits to Ban Guan, the shop in Pagoh where we bought the fertilizers from and also it had a Porla License to collect oil palm fruits. When informed, they sent a small lorry each day to the plantation to collect the fruits and completed in three days with a total tonnage of 5.55 tons, our first harvest.


Employing undocumented foreign workers was only a temporary measure. My first option was to engage our own workers to work in the plantation. So in July 2004, I put in again my application to recruit five foreign workers under my realty company which held 60% ownership of the plantation. However, a month later, I received a reply from the Ministry of Home Affairs to say that my application was not approved and the only one reason stated was that my company already had sufficient foreign workers! How on earth they came to that conclusion I failed to fathom! Through my friend James, I sent in a letter of appeal and again in early September 2004 the Ministry concerned again rejected my appeal giving the same reason as before. I wanted to give up; but James advised me to appeal again for the last time. I did before the end of October. In mid March 2005, nearly five months after my last appeal, the application to recruit five foreign workers was finally approved.


I was still adamant that, without close supervision, foreign workers from Indonesia would not be suitable to work in our plantation. So I approached a couple of foreign-labour recruitment agencies to look for suitable candidates from Nepal but all to no avail. To get foreign workers from Indonesia was a piece of cake. In May, after my failed attempts to recruit Nepalese workers, I approached an agency in Muar and within a fortnight I was furnished with details of five candidates from Indonesia. But by then, I had already appointed a contractor from Pagoh to harvest the oil palm fruits and had decided not to employ any foreign workers. Again I intentionally allowed the approved permit for the recruitment of foreign workers to lapse. This was the end of my failed attempts to recruit foreign labour to work in the plantation.

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