Workers in oil palm estates

In 2007, I was a research assistant at Wild Asia and one of my first few field trips with a DSLR camera was to oil palm estates where I assisted in social surveys.

The conversion of land into oil palm estates is rampant, badly affecting many indigneous communities who have lost much of their traditional land (and thus their livelihood) to large corporations.

Seen as a crop that will bring economic development to rural areas by the government – the expansion of oil palm plantations does not seem to be halting anytime soon despite protests from grassroot organizations and environmentalists.

With much of the workforce coming from neighboring countries, the well-being of these workers widely differ from estate to estate. In the worst cases, the conditions can be akin to modern slavery.

Below are some photos of the workers in the estate, all taken in 2007.

Workers at the oil palm estate get onto trucks early in the morning to be transported to their area of duty in the estate. (Puah Sze Ning)

Workers at the oil palm estate get onto trucks early in the morning to be transported to their area of duty in the estate.

Workers at the oil palm estate get onto trucks early in the morning to be transported to their area of duty in the estate. (Puah Sze Ning)

They bring along sickles that are used to harvest the fruits.

A worker sweeps up loose fruits which fall from the bunches when it is harvested. (Puah Sze Ning)

While the young ones can carry the heavy fruit bunches, the older men and women collect the loose fruits on the ground.

An oil palm harvester marking the amount he harvested today. He is paid by piece rate. (Puah Sze Ning)

An oil palm harvester marking the amount he harvested today. He is paid by piece rate.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

These markers are left by the fruits.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Fruit bunches are left by the road, awaiting collection.

An oil palm estate worker washing up. (http://szening.com)

A worker washing up.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

(left) In estates where the workers are well taken care of, workers such as this sweet old lady have made it very much their home, so much so that the linesite (workers’ quarters) looks and feels like a kampung (village); proudly maintained and adorned with flowering plants (to compete in the annual Most Beautiful Linesite contest). Unlike in Peninsular Malaysia, migrant estate workers in Sabah have their familes with them. This lady, originally from the Philippines, has lived here for a long time but no longer works in the estate fields. Instead, her sons work for the estate, so they’ve been able to continue living here. She can’t imagine being anywhere else; as she says, “this is my home”.