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Stop Trading Away Workers Lives for Palm Oil Profits!

PAN AP Feature, 26 March 2007

Groups expose politics of endangering workers health in Malaysia ’s pursuit of global palm oil dominance by keeping paraquat a main feature in plantations

“Workers have been suffering many negative impacts on their health due to paraquat.  The poor sanitary system in the plantation worsens the situation and most often all the food sources are also contaminated by paraquat”, asserted Nagamah Rahman, a former sprayer with over 14 years experience as a pesticide sprayer.  She is currently medically boarded out due to ill health from exposure to pesticides such as paraquat.  “Compensation is not given to workers.  Importance is given only to the profits of the company and not on the worker’s health.  The government too does not want to take action and women are usually marginalised and their problems are not taken into consideration” she voiced out at the launch of the book, “The Politics of Paraquat” held in Kuala Lumpur on March 18th. 

Women plantation sprayers, their lives and back breaking contribution to Malaysia ’s economic growth, and their struggles against paraquat took centre stage at the launch. 

Another former sprayer, Rajam, related her experience of how an accident at her work place cost her, her eye sight.  During a rainy spell, she slipped and fell while spraying Gramoxone (Syngenta’s trade name for paraquat).  The impact of the fall caused the nozzle of the pump to spray the pesticide directly into her eyes.  Unfortunately there was no water supply for her to wash her face.  Rajamah related how she had to walk miles and took more than two hours to reach the estate clinic for medical attention, by then her eyes had reddened and swelled drastically.  The clinic attendant washed her eyes and asked her to go the government hospital.  At the hospital, doctors and staff were very unsympathetic, and inferred that she was exaggerating and did not know what she was suffering.  Upon her insistence, they checked her eyes and found that there was still some pesticide residue in her eyes.  She was then admitted for one week.  Due to the delay in treatment, she is blinded in one eye.  Her pleas to get monetary help from the Malaysian Social Security Organizations (SOCSO) were neglected at first and after continued efforts she now receives a very insignificant amount of RM 85 a month for her medical condition.  She continues to work in the plantation (spreading fertilizer) to support her family because she has no other means of survival.

“The ban on paraquat is actually a worker’s fight for justice and all the workers should join in to support the campaign”, Rajam strongly asserted at the end of her presentation. 

Published by the Kuala Lumpur based Tenaganita and the Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Asia and the Pacific, the book confronts the unethical arguments used by Syngenta—the leading producer of paraquat—and parties with a vested interest in commercial agriculture, to extend the use of this toxic substance in the face of compelling evidence for its removal.  As noted by the authors, Josie Fernandez and Rash Behari Bhattacharjee, the book aims to awaken the conscience of its readers to the harm being done to farmers and agricultural workers, especially in hot, humid climates, where the use of protective equipment for spraying paraquat is impractical.

Rash stated that his interest in co-authoring the book was due to the great inhumanity he observed in the plantations.  “This inhumanity is clearly visible because the worker is usually drenched from head to toe in the poison for the total of 7-8 work hours”, he noted.

Meanwhile, co-author Josie expressed her hope that the book would start a debate and urged all those present to look at the paraquat issue from the framework of human rights, social rights, children rights, women’s rights, workers rights, and cultural justice.   

The book relates the plight of pesticide sprayers in Malaysia ’s plantations, describing their powerlessness against the political and economic influence of corporations.  This forms the backdrop to the campaign mounted by public interest groups to ban paraquat.  The regulatory environment and the stances taken by governments towards this hazardous chemical reveal the contrast between economic interests and their duty to ensure that the people are free from harm.

In November 1, 2006, the Malaysian government decided to take a regressive step by allowing the re-registration of the highly toxic weed killer paraquat, which it had prohibited in 2002, to allow “a comprehensive study on its many uses”.  Plantation workers, Tenaganita and PAN AP had collectively campaigned for the ban of paraquat, and were shocked but not totally surprised by the development, as the government had been urged to remain strong against pressure from the palm oil industry, and the largest producer of paraquat, Syngenta.  It appeared that economic considerations on the part of the government, relating to the ’cost effectiveness’ of paraquat, had superceded concerns over its well-known hazards.

“The Pesticides Board of Malaysia has reinstated the registration of paraquat; at first allowing its use for weed control in young oil palm less than 2 years old.  But the re-registration was later extended to include other crops like pineapples, grown mainly in Johor where the Agriculture Minister’s political constituency lies”, noted Dr. Irene Fernandez, Director of Tenaganita, during her Opening address.  She added, “Arising from the industries lobbying tactics and the racial politics the ruling party plays, it is no surprise that the affected communities are the most marginalized in the country, women plantation workers who are mainly Indian and migrant workers.  Is it a reflection of their weak political status?”  

Irene also voiced her concern on the imminent setting up of the mega palm oil firm in Malaysia via the 11 billion dollar merger of 3 prominent firms, Irene pointed the conflict and contradiction of this issue.  “On the one hand there is the merger of industry with the components of government as the shareholder (Permodalan Nasional Berhad as controller of the merged firm), and on the other hand are the workers plight and struggle for right to health and safe working conditions” she noted while questioning which side the government would favour.  

The reconsideration of the ban on one of the most dangerous poisons in the world has serious implications on the protection of workers and farmers health, and rights to safe working environment.  With all the focus on generating growth, wealth and enhancing the development of the country via palm oil production and trade, it seems a whole sector will continue to be marginalised, ignored and worse still, made to bear the brunt of ill-health, exposure, poisonings and even death from this dangerous chemical.  And it is the very sector on whose backs Malaysia has become rich.  Were the workers ever consulted about the decision to lift the ban?  Were they ever in the equation?

“Paraquat is highly acutely toxic and has poisoned thousands of agricultural workers and farmers in the South.  Paraquat damages the lungs, heart, kidneys, adrenal glands, central nervous system, liver, muscles and spleen, causing multi-organ failure. There is no antidote, and there is strong evidence linking it to Parkinson’s disease and skin cancer”, stated Sarojeni Rengam, Executive Director of PAN AP. “Syngenta has been profiting from this pesticide, which has contributed significantly to the 8.05 billion US dollar sales it announced in February.  The government of Switzerland has not approved paraquat for use since 1989, and it is not surprising that it is pushing sales in Malaysia and other countries of the South.  This double standard of production in one part of the world leading to sales in countries where conditions are totally inappropriate for its use is totally unacceptable,” Rengam asserts. 

Sharing various aspects of the global campaign against paraquat that PAN AP is involved in, Sarojeni also asserted that the book forwards the struggle of workers against paraquat.  “It is a struggle for their health, life and livelihood against big corporation whose foremost priority is profit,” she added, noting that in the process big corporations completely disregard the impact of the poison although there is overwhelming evidence of paraquat’s hazards and the health impacts on workers.  “The book also highlights the worker’s struggle against the plantation management, exposure to toxic pesticides and exploitative conditions with low wages that are hardly enough to sustain their lives.  It is also a struggle against the government whose policies continue to promote destructive agriculture with the use of pesticides such as paraquat, thus giving importance to profits at the expense of workers and consumer’s health”, she added. 

In Malaysia , paraquat has been a major cause of concern due to continued poisonings suffered by plantation workers—especially pesticides sprayers who are mostly women. Workers on estates are frequently employed as sprayers for six days a week, ten months a year or more, and therefore have a high degree of exposure to the chemical.  The greatest risks to workers of fatal and serious incidents are during mixing and loading of spray equipment, where contact with the chemical concentrate occurs.  Fatal accidents have also been described due to prolonged contact with the diluted paraquat spray during application.  Conditions of use in many developing countries, including rapidly growing ones like Malaysia , make it difficult to follow label instructions and recommendations.  Paraquat causes daily suffering to an extremely large number of farmers and workers.  Problems resulting from paraquat exposure are found around the world: from the United States to Japan and from Costa Rica to Malaysia.1

Palm oil is big business these days, especially with the frenzied interest over biofuels as the panacea for the world’s depleting and polluting fossil fuel woes.  For many, the bio-fuel future heralds environment friendly and renewable energy source for transportation and industry—and Malaysia , as the world's top palm oil producer, is set to grab the lion’s share of the market. 

In January 2007, Sime Darby, Golden Hope Plantations and Kumpulan Guthrie Berhad, signed agreements launching an 11 billion dollar merger, creating the world's largest listed palm oil firm.  The deal was firmly backed by the Malaysian government, which pushed for its conclusion by insisting that national investment company, Permodalan Nasional Berhad (PNB), return to the negotiating table.  PNB will control the firm, with total annual revenue of over 26 billion ringgit, a workforce of some 107,000 and combined plantation land of some 600,000 hectares in Malaysia and Indonesia .  Malaysia produced 15 million tons of oil palm in 2005, almost half the global total of 33.3 million tons.  The three companies’ combined output is estimated to be 2.07 million tons.2

The merger and consolidation of these business interests fall in line with the government’s 9th Plan (RMK 9, 2006-2010) of making the agricultural sector the third engine of growth for the economy after the manufacturing and services sector.3 Palm oil exports are expected to increase to 12.8 million tonnes in the 2006-2010 period in tandem with anticipated global demand.4

The paraquat case and the struggle of the women workers for safe working conditions is just one dimension of the overall plight of workers in the high value plantation sector in Malaysia that is documented in the book. Their struggle straddles a gamut of problems—heavy workloads, poor wages and hence ongoing poverty; lack of proper health care facilities, lack of educational facilities for children; low social status, social isolation of life on plantations.  Workers have been calling for just remuneration, the right to ownership of their homes, and the right to land to grow their own food, in return for often life-long years of service in the plantations.


Penthouse, Wisma, MLS, No. 31, Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman,
50100 Kuala Lumpur , Malaysia
Tel.: (603) 2697 3671, 26913691  Fax: (603) 26913681
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Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Asia and the Pacific
P.O. Box 1170, Penang 10850 , MALAYSIA
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1. "Paraquat – Unacceptable Health Risks for Users" available at:
2. Malaysian plantation firms sign deals for mega-merger, 24 January 2007 1800 hrs (SST) 1000 hrs (GMT).  Accessed on Thursday 25 January 2007.
3. Speech By The Prime Minister Yab Dato’ Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi At The Tabling Of The Motion On The Ninth Malaysia Plan, 2006-2010 Dewan Rakyat, 31 March 2006.  Accessed on Thursday 25 January 2007:
4. As noted in the “The Politics Of Paraquat”, specific developments have pushed through for expansion: 
·   The Government has established a Cabinet Committee on Palm Oil Competitiveness (CCPO) to develop Malaysia as the region’s Palm Oil Hub as well as to increase the competitiveness of Malaysian palm oil.  The development of the Palm Oil Industrial Cluster (POIC) in Sabah is the first step in this process of making Malaysia the PO Hub.
·   The Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) will continue to forge strategic research collaborations with major global manufacturers of petroleum and petroleum-based products to expedite the utilisation of palm oil or palm-based oleochemicals.  The Advanced Oleochemical Technology Division’s (AOTD) Incubation Centre under MPOB will undertake such collaborative studies with international R&D centres and multinational companies (MNCs), service laboratories and testing and certification centres in order to make Malaysia an International Research Centre for Oils and Fats.
·   The Government has decided that palm diesel be introduced to replace petroleum diesel as a new source of biofuel for transportation and industry usage.  The National Biofuel Policy has been formulated to encourage the production and usage of palm diesel B5 (blending of five percent olein with diesel) as an alternative, environment friendly and renewable energy source for transportation and industry.
·   MPOB has been actively involved in carrying out R&D in oil palm biotechnology to transform oil palm from a commodity-based crop to an industry-based crop. The areas of biotechnology focused for the development of the plantation industries will include bio-informatics, genetic engineering, metabolic engineering, genomic and DNA chip technology.

About the Authors:

Josie M. Fernandez has been at the forefront of citizen’s advocacy since the 1980’s, leading national and regional consumer organisations. She was the founder president of the Education and Research Association for Consumers, Malaysia , Regional Director of the Consumers International Asia Pacific office and was a former Deputy Secretary-General of the Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations (FOMCA). As an advocate of the rights of consumers, women, children and workers and as an environmental activist, Josie has lobbied, written and spoken widely on these issues locally and internationally. She was an active participant of international networks like the Health Action International, Pesticide Action Network and numerous environmental, human rights and women’s networks. As a researcher and writer, she has authored and edited some 20 publications and many papers. Josie has served as a consultant to the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs, Malaysia .  The Malaysian government conferred Josie the National Consumer Award in 1994. She is a recipient of the 2007 Asian Public Intellectual Fellowship of the Nippon Foundation, Japan . She is a founder director of the Centre for the Advancement of Philanthropy and a board member of Transparency International – Malaysia and a consultant to FOMCA.

Rash Behari Bhattacharjee is a journalist with an interest in environment, development and human rights issues. He has been in the mass media for over two decades, and is currently an Associate Editor at theSun, Malaysia ’s first free national daily, where he is responsible for the paper’s opinion and editorial pages. He is a founder-director of the Malaysian Centre for Environmental Communicators, a non-profit organisation dedicated to enhancing the profile of environmental journalism, and is currently its Hon. Secretary.  He has also spent time at the International Organization of Consumers Unions (now renamed Consumers International) and the Consumers Association of Penang previously.