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A worker spraying pesticide at a farm in Cameron Highlands.

ACUTE labour shortage is threatening Cameron Highlands’ agricultural sector, which can lead to severe financial losses for farmers and rising vegetable prices.

Cameron Highlands Agricultural Cooperative Association representative Wong Seng Yee said the shortage was about 50 per cent, with at least a quarter of farmlands lying fallow.

“The tight manpower situation has been ongoing for many years, but has never been this serious,” he told the New Sunday Times.

“Farmers are facing market failure and production problems, especially those who export their produce.

“The labour shortage delays harvest and replanting, thereby reducing yields, which means they are not able to meet their contractual obligations.”

He said the situation could lead to higher vegetable prices.

Cameron Highlands Malay Farmers Association president Datuk Syed Abdul Rahman said many farmers depended on manual labour due to geographical constraints.

Farmers were also unwilling to invest in technology as many of them, especially small-scale farmers, relied on temporary occupation leases (TOL) for the land they used.

The advancing age of some farmers left them with no choice but to depend on foreign workers because locals demanded higher wages, which farmers were unwilling to pay.

An unskilled foreign worker
is paid RM1,000 to RM1,100 a month to work in farms in Cameron Highlands, and if the worker was promoted to supervisory role, he could earn between RM2,000 and RM3,000.

Syed said the Immigration
Department should set up a foreign labour office in Cameron Highlands to make the hiring of foreign workers easier.

Approval for the hiring of foreign workers is based on acreage and type of crops. Under Home Ministry regulations, only three foreign workers can be hired per acre.

Floriculturist K.C. Kwang said some requirements were near impossible to meet, such as the certificate of fitness for workers’ accommodation.

He said most workers’ accommodation were built on TOL land. Workers often lived in temporary quarters, some in makeshift zinc huts, with inadequate sanitary facilities.

He said it was not that employers did not want to take the well-being of their workers seriously, but many farmland was on TOL land in remote or hilly areas, with no proper access to water and electricity.

People’s Progressive Party (MyPPP) president Tan Sri M. Kayveas said it was estimated that there was more than 15,000 foreign workers in Cameron Highlands, both legal and illegal.

He said some foreign workers, mostly Bangladeshis, started their own farms on land rented out by retiring farmers and Orang Asli.

He said a holistic solution was needed to solve the problem, instead of stop-gap measures that allowed more foreign workers to come in easily.

Strict housing rules a challenge for farmers

CAMERON Highlands authorities admit that farmers are facing labour shortage, saying one of the main reasons is housing regulation conflicts.

District Agricultural Head Officer Shazwan Safie said it was difficult for farmers to provide accommodation with certificate of fitness (CF) as they were not allowed to build living quarters on land with temporary occupation leases (TOL).

He said authorities had acknowledge this problem with the Labour Department and had suggested that employers rent houses outside the farm.

“The law states that if you
want more workers, you need to
fulfil housing requirements. The homes need to have a CF.

“It is difficult to build a home on the farm that can get a CF, thus why (authorities) suggest renting houses outside the farm, in town.

“Rent in Cameron Highlands is expensive. Many farmers cannot afford it. A unit can cost about RM1,000 per month. And farmers will need to provide transport,” he told the New Sunday Times.

He said farmers were forced build temporary quarters, such as makeshift zinc huts, on their land, which affected applications to hire more foreign workers.

He said his office would evaluate all farmers’ applications for foreign workers, adding that rules allowed only six workers per hectare, but that depended on the Home Ministry’s approval.

He said there were other criteria farmers needed to fulfil, such as the Good Agriculture Practice certification.

“For those with the certification, we may consider giving support because of the extra effort they put in their operations.

“But in most cases, they get approved for (fewer workers), and this causes the shortage.”

Immigration director-general Datuk Seri Mustafar Ali said the department understood farmers’ plight, and assured them that the department was taking a proactive approach to providing services to deal with the issue.

He said the department used an office at the District Islamic Affairs Department to provide documentation services to foreign workers at Cameron Highlands.

“We are planning to set up a permanent office at a building owned by the district office,” he said, adding that the department was looking into setting up various counters, including one to process work passes.

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