The ex-workers of Kamiri Estate in Sungai Siput in Perak were jubilant at the end of 2011: their 12-year struggle for just compensation for the loss of their jobs and accommodation had resulted in an offer of housing lots measuring 45 feet by 85 feet for each of them on top of cash compensation as prescribed under the Lay-Off Benefits Regulations 1980 of the Employment Act.
These workers had been laid off when their employer Guthrie decided to switch from rubber cultivation to oil palm.
All over the country, thousands of estate workers were laid off and asked to vacate their quarters, which they and their families had occupied for three or four generations – but with meagre compensation of 20 days’ wages for each year of service. Given their low wages then, this translated to about RM10,000 for a worker with 30 years’ service.
Most of these rubber tappers were third-generation workers on rubber plantations. Their grandparents and parents worked on these estates and stayed on in the workers’ quarters after retirement, as their children took over their jobs and houses.
Oil palm estates require much fewer workers per acre of land. In addition, many estate managements elected to outsource oil palm harvesting to contractors employing foreign labour.
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These changes meant that most of the displaced rubber tappers not only lost their jobs but also their accommodation. They had to move out. But the vast majority of them did not own any house outside the estates, as their wages had barely met basic needs, let alone being enough to pay instalments for a house.
The workers of Kamiri Estate and Changkat Salak Estate asked for better compensation. They wanted an ex-gratia payment equal to the compensation sum specified in the Employment Act, as well as a free housing lot for each family.
Guthrie demurred and when the workers refused to vacate their quarters, filed eviction proceedings in the Ipoh High Court in 2002.
The estate workers turned to Vengkatraman from Jayaratnam & Co, who, ably assisted by Balasundaram, represented the workers pro bono.
A long court battle ensued. The workers won several skirmishes, including blocking Guthrie from demolishing the houses of the workers who had accepted the compensation and moved out.
Our basis for that was that the estate quarters had asbestos roofs. Demolition of these houses would have exposed the workers in nearby houses to cancer-causing asbestos dust.
The workers also distributed pamphlets widely in Perak and demonstrated in front of Guthrie’s headquarters in Kuala Lumpur a couple of times. They even got a meeting with then Guthrie chairman Musa Hitam.
Many of the judges were sympathetic. One appeals court judge even asked Guthrie’s lawyers, “So where are they supposed to go? Are they to go and live on trees?”
But in the end, the judges had to follow the law. Malaysian law does not create a legal basis to argue for alternative accommodation, even if you are a third-generation estate worker with no kampong (village) outside the estate to go to upon being laid off.
After fighting all the way up to the Federal Court, the final decision went against the workers. Guthrie won the legal right to evict them in 2009, but the company hesitated as another development had been unfolding.
In 2008 the workers from Kamiri Estate and Changkat Salak Esate were invited to a seminar on the welfare of plantation workers, organised by Dr Xavier Jeyakumar, then an executive council member in the Selangor government.
A senior officer from Sime Darby, Mahmad Helmy Basha, presented a paper at this seminar, and the workers met him during the lunch break. (By then, Guthrie had merged with two other companies to form Sime Darby.)
This led to a series of meetings and finally, a deal: the 34 workers would buy seven acres of land from Sime Darby for RM490,000, paid for by an NGO that would get three acres of this land to build a vocational college. The workers would each get a free housing lot in the remaining four acres. This should have taken place in 2011.
But in one of the meetings with the Sungai Siput Land Office, the state government sprang a surprise: it told Sime Darby that the state government had decided to use some vacant government land to give housing lots to all the 34 workers involved and asked Sime Darby to contribute RM340,000 to build a bridge across the Sungai Buloh river.
The workers argued against this proposal, urging the Land Office to use the state land to relocate squatter villagers in Sungai Siput, who were also asking for alternative housing, but to no avail.
From 2011 to 2018, the Land Office employed three different contractors to level the land, mark out the housing lots and put in the drains. Seven years to complete work that could have been done in three months!
After preparing these housing lots, the Sungai Siput land committee, without consulting the workers, decided that they should build terrace houses for the workers instead of giving the workers the housing lots.
The workers protested as they had witnessed the high level of inefficiency in the relatively simple job of preparing housing lots for 34 workers. They worried about further delays and had serious doubts about the quality of the houses that would be built for them. They each sent in a statutory declaration, making their wishes clear.
The state government then just sat on its hands for another four years and in late 2022, decided to proceed with the terrace houses scheme.
The workers are very frustrated. It is now 23 years since they were laid off. And they still haven’t been able to move on with their lives. In fact, 10 among them have moved on from this world!
“Why are they doing this to us?” one of the ex-workers asked in a meeting. “We were not asking for money from them or for an inch of their land.”
“We went to the MB when the court case was going on and asked him for four acres of land to give us lots. The answer then was there was no land available. It is OK if you cannot help us, but why do you sabotage us?” another ex-worker said.
The sad truth is that there are individuals in the Sungai Siput district land committee – which was made up of the district officer, the chief assistant district officer, a representative of the chief minister and the state assembly member for Lintang in September 2022, when the decision to proceed with the terrace houses scheme was adopted – who were/are allegedly looking to generate business contracts for their cronies.
Giving housing lots to the workers would also have created a demand for constructing houses – but the difference is, the workers would choose their own contractors.
Converting the entire scheme to terrace houses would enable individuals in the district land committee to allegedly channel the business to their favourite contractor and subcontractors – with a contract value of RM4m or more.
If true, this would be a misuse of power by the people entrusted to use it to help the people. It would be a form of corruption, one that is rampant and shortchanges the rural poor all over the country.
Funds from the Ministry of Rural Development for rural development projects like the people’s housing programme PPR and the repair of bridges and community halls are allegedly channelled into the pockets of cronies.
Often, these cronies are incompetent, resulting in poor quality structures. Ultimately, it is the rural poor who suffer.
The political and administrative elite at the district level profit immensely, and many of them live in luxury.
Yet, routinely, many rural folk bow and touch their foreheads to the hands of those who are stealing from them! Feudal values persist in society.
The Kamiri Estate and Salak Estate ex-workers have decided they are not going to keep quiet about this injustice. They are going to bring it to light. They hope that senior politicians in the “unity government” will take note and intervene on the side of the ex-workers.
“Just give us what you promised in 2011 when you ruined the agreement we had with Sime Darby. You do not have to build houses for us,” one ex-worker said.
This isn’t an isolated problem. The unity government should take serious efforts to address misgovernance in the assistance programmes for the rural poor.
Update: After the workers staged a sit-in protest in front of the Perak chief minister’s office on 10 July, the Perak state government relented on 14 July to the demands of the ex-estate workers from Kamiri Estate and Changkat Salak Estate and upheld a state government council decision in 2012: all 34 ex-estate workers are to be given a free housing lot at Rancangan Perkampungan Tersusun (RPT) Batu 1, Sungai Siput. The state government also agreed to cancel the housing scheme that the workers had opposed.