Sunday, 15 June, 2003

Rubber: colonial past, slippery future

By Jonathan Kent
Kuala Lumpur

Rubber growing still has a colonial feel.
Malaysia's rubber workers will be picking up fatter pay packets this month as part of a new minimum wage agreement.
Securing the deal has been a major struggle, taking 40 years of campaigning.
But the deal may have come rather late in the day, with many Malaysians leaving the sector in search of better paid jobs in other industries.
And the worry is, in a few years time the country may have no significant rubber industry left.
Little has changed about the way rubber is gathered in decades.
Latex drips from a rubber tree into a bottle - a scene which could have come from the 1950s or even earlier.
According to labour rights campaigner Ravi Chandra many bosses exercise enormous power over workers on their estates.
"Even after the work their activities are controlled by management, so they cannot even speak to outsiders and sometimes they won't allow outsiders to come inside," he says.
Life for workers on estates is hard and the pay is poor.
One Tamil worker told me she earned only around $50 in April, less than half Malaysia's poverty wage.
She gets paid only for the latex she collects but if the weather is bad or the harvest poor it affects her earnings. She struggles to feed her family and has become trapped in debt.
But this month thousands of Malaysia's rubber tappers will receive more under a minimum wage pact guaranteeing them at least $90 a month.
Their full earning potential is higher, more than $200 a month.
Mr Navamukadam, leader of the National Union of Plantation Workers NUPW, says it's been a long struggle.
"Since the formation of the union in 1946 employers have resisted our struggle to get basic income security because they felt this will lead to fixed cost obligations which will make them less competitive in the global commodity market," he says.
Indeed wages account for 60% of production costs in the Malaysian rubber industry.
And the industry is struggling. Production is less than half the 1990 level, and the output from estates, as opposed to small holdings, is barely a quarter of what it was 13 years ago.
Malaysia is losing out to cheaper rubber producers in Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, explains Mohamad Audong, who heads the Malaysian Agricultural Producers Association (MAPA).
"They pay lower wages than Malaysia, they have ample labour supply. In Malaysia we are definitely short of labour, we have to import labour from our neighbouring countries," he says.
Malaysia is a victim of its own success in transforming its economy into one of the most industrialised in the developing world.
Workers on rubber estates have been left behind as those in other industries have become wealthier.
"Over the period of 24 years we have changed from an agricultural to an industrial-based economy... the workers now instead of working in the plantation sector prefer to work in the industrial sector," he says.
Hence the industry is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
Malaysia's economy was built on rubber and tin in the last century but in 10 years' time it may have no rubber industry worth the name.
And those employed to work on plantations will probably be from poorer neighbours: Burma, Indonesia and Vietnam.
This pay deal may mark the end of an era as much as the beginning of a new one.