KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian palm oil giants and market observers expect further delays in the arrival of some 32,000 foreign workers in 2022 for the oil palm plantation due to the concerning emergence of the Omicron variant and tighter restrictions in standard operating procedures (SOPs).

The century-old palm oil industry is already experiencing a nationwide acute labour shortage of approximately 75,000 harvesters, which can derail Malaysia's goal of increasing its revenue by RM20 billion by 2021.
As a result, Malaysia's CPO potential production will be reduced by approximately 20 per cent to 30 per cent in 2020 due to the shortage.
While labour shortages in the oil palm industry are not new, they have become more acute in recent years, particularly since the government banned the intake of new foreign workers in March 2020.
Agricultural experts believe that increasing the inflow of foreign workers will allow the sector to maximise its potential to produce more than 20 million tonnes of crude palm oil (CPO) per year.
The Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) director-general Dr Ahmad Parveez Ghulam Kadir said the intake process of foreign workers would likely take longer than usual as it involves participation and approval from various ministries and agencies in Malaysia and the source country.
This ensures the inflow of 32,000 foreign workers into Malaysia would not be exposing Malaysian to the risk of infection.
"Virus mutates all the time, and it is not surprising to see new variants emerge. However, not all mutations indicate increased disease severity or transmission rates.
"Thus far, there is no clear indication on the severity of the newly identified Omicron variant," he told the New Straits Times (NST) recently.
MPOB believes the severity of Omicron has yet to be revealed, and currently, no information suggests the symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants.
"Given improving Covid-19 vaccination rates within the country, we hope the emergence of the new variant would not cause further delay for the arrival of foreign workers," said Ahmad Parveez.
It was reported that Malaysian and Indonesian governments had agreed on several matters ahead of signing an updated memorandum of understanding (MoU) on the recruitment of Indonesian domestic workers by next month.
The MoU was essential to be expedited as Indonesia would only allow its citizens to enter Malaysia to work in the agricultural sector after it has been finalised.
Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA) chief executive officer Datuk Mohamad Nageeb Wahab said no new update on the arrival of foreign workers, but the industry is waiting for the Indonesian government agreement for the workers to come to Malaysia.
FGV Holdings Bhd (FGV) is currently preparing for new-recruit migrant workers for 2022 by establishing post-Covid-19 recruitment guidelines, which adheres to the current Healthy Ministry and the National Disaster Management Agency (Nadma) requirements.
FGV, Malaysia's largest CPO producer, stated that the decision was made under government guidelines and constantly monitored the latest developments.
"We anticipate the first batch of foreign workers to arrive by the end of the first quarter of 2022," an FGV spokesperson told the NST recently.
As of October 2021, FGV was operating at 70 per cent of its plantation workforce requirement, with a shortage of approximately 10,500 workers in the plantation fields.
"This shortage includes the 2,000 harvesters required to achieve the optimal yield," he added.
A Sime Darby Plantation Bhd (SDP) spokesperson stated that none of the countries currently listed on the Health Ministry's travel ban list are countries from which foreign plantation workers are recruited.
The integrated global plantation company is also closely monitoring the development of the Omicron variant.
"If the entry restriction is expanded to include workers from major labour source countries such as Indonesia, India and Bangladesh - this could delay the government's ongoing plan to bring in a total of 32,000 foreign workers as harvesters for the plantation industry," SDP spokesperson told the NST recently.
He said this would affect the allocation of foreign workers to plantation companies, including SDP.
By the end of September 2021, SDP has over 25,000 workers in its upstream operations in Malaysia, of which over 16,800 were foreign workers.
"This is insufficient to ensure optimal productivity as our total requirement for workers for our upstream operations in Malaysia is over 32,000."
SDP said the shortage of workers for the company's operations is about 7,000 or about 22 per cent of the total requirement for workers for its upstream Malaysia operations.
"The new intake through the government's plan to bring in 32,000 foreign workers will certainly help to address some of the shortfalls."
On the other hand, SDP intends to continue to push for the recruitment of local workers to alleviate the current labour shortages and is actively seeking ways to reduce its reliance on manual labour and foreign workers.
"This is done through our continuous effort to mechanise, automate and digitalise our plantation operations."
As part of this effort, SDP hopes to transform the nature of work on its estates, making plantation work less laborious while simultaneously increasing efficiency and productivity.
The company is also leveraging on machinery and adopting technologies such as drones to reduce dependence on labour.
"As we progress further with our mechanisation initiatives, we expect to attract more Malaysians who are highly skilled," it added.
FGV also planned to address the labour shortage by increasing recruitment drives for local workers and mechanisation initiatives.

Sumber: New Straits Times