One of the suggestions put forward to reduce labor needs is to mechanize the harvesting of fruits, which is now done manually.
The labor shortage in the palm oil sector is the biggest problem facing the industry at the moment, say researchers who believe greater efforts have to be taken to reduce the over-reliance on cheap foreign workers.
They said the shortage existed even before there were issues caused by the pandemic, but the situation worsened last year as many workers returned to their home countries.
Before the pandemic, the sector was already short of about 36,000 workers, but in August, it was forecast that this number could swell to close to 62,000 by the end of 2020.
During a webinar, the head of the agriculture and food security cluster at the Academy of Professors Malaysia, Fatimah Mohamed Arshad, said this must be addressed by attracting young Malaysians to the sector and embracing mechanization of certain tasks.
“It can be difficult to draw the young into the sector, but if they are provided with good wages and perks, I think we can bring them in.
“If work is too laborious and brings too much hardship, we have even seen some foreign workers run away. But getting even 10% to 20% of local workers is more than enough.”
She suggested the automation of labor intensive tasks like harvesting as a way to reduce the manpower needed on plantations
“It’s not about totally doing away with the efforts of laborers, but minimizing it. If you reduce it to 70%, that’s good.
“The problem with Malaysia is that we didn’t attempt it at all. The corporate sectors advising the government think the only way to improve and increase competition is by reducing labor costs. When you start to rely on lower wage workers, it discourages innovation.”
Fatimah said a simple example would be the vehicles used at driving ranges to collect golf balls, and questioned why a task like collecting harvested fruit could not be simplified in the same way.
“You cannot do away with laborers, but you can minimize the dependency,” she said.