[pullquote style="right"]We’ve survived for so long, so why now?[/pullquote]
In the oil palm plantation world, A. K. Kumaran is considered an old hand. Fresh out of school, Kumar entered the plantation business and worked under British managers more than two decades ago.
“The planters of the old school taught us to look after and reward our workers. We took note of things like safety but didn’t get to the micro level, ” says Kumaran, 47, or better known as Kumar. ‘I thought we were doing enough.”
Like many planters and managers of his generation, Kumar’s initial reaction to Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was negative.
“We’ve survived for so long, so why now?”
Set up in 2004, RSPO was established as a non-profit organization to set and enforce standards and best practices in the oil palm industry. To date, it comprises over 400 members who are producers, refiners, processors, retailers, traders and environmental NGOs.
At the core of it, RSPO is about helping companies cultivate good agriculture practices and having a quality management system in place. These practices are then balanced with an emphasis on health and safety, care for the environment and providing a fair workplace for both workers and the communities that are linked to the company.
Ultimately, RSPO companies will be better managed to improve their yields and profitability, and not at the expense of their people or the environment.
[pullquote style="right"]Initially the biggest hurdle is myself – I had to convince myself why the certification is important and not because the bosses say so.[/pullquote]
Tackling the changes
With the help of Wild Asia, Keresa Plantations started their RSPO journey about two years ago.
“I realized that although we’ve been taking care of the workers in terms of their wages, RSPO’s approach is more holistic – we have to look at safety, housing and health, etc,” says Kumar, Keresa’s general manager for the past nine years. He has previously worked in the plantation industry in Peninsular Malaysia, Indonesia and Sabah.
To implement RSPO guidelines, the company has to start introduce the initiatives from top down. As acting senior assistant, Kamarulzaman Abd Wahab’s job is to ensure his staff follows the guidelines and parameters. He also looks into their welfare and needs and gets to talk with the workers directly at line sites.
“Initially the biggest hurdle is myself – I had to convince myself why the certification is important and not because the bosses say so,” says Kamarulzaman, 45. Like Kumar, he has been in the industry for more than 20 years. “These guidelines never existed when I joined the industry in 1984. Why give us such a burden now?”
Over time, Kamarulzaman found that he’s learning new things despite his years of experience in the industry.
“The RSPO has opened my eyes with regards to things like OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and ISO (International Organization for Standardization),” he adds. “I realized the guidelines and criteria are meant to benefit the company in the long run.”
“Initially, when Wild Asia came in and told me we have to reduce the use of chemical, I couldn’t accept it because we’ve had a weeding programme for awhile,” adds Kumar. Then he sat down with his team and hashed it out.
“We realized we were spraying areas with no grass just for the sake of spraying. Now we’ve reduced our chemical use by 30% and our cost has dropped too.”
[pullquote style="right"]Sometimes it takes a year to heal and some of the workers have to stay at home due to the pain[/pullquote]
One of the biggest changes that has to transpire at Keresa is the emphasis on safety and health. Foreman Samsudin Jaafar says one of the common injuries affecting harvesters are thorn pricks from the fronds. Most of the time, the workers will ignore the wounds which will eventually get infected and swell.
“Sometimes it takes a year to heal and some of the workers have to stay at home due to the pain,” says Samsudin, 27, of South Sulawesi. In August 2009, Wild Asia brought a consultant who advised workers to turn the fronds with the thorns face down to minimize the risk.
It’s a simple solution that doesn’t cost money yet protect the workers. They are also instructed to wear long pants and rubber shoes to minimize injuries. Keresa is in the process of sourcing for jungle boots for the workers. Every month the workers receive training and instructions from their superiors, Samsudin says.
“On a weekly basis, workers take turns to see the general manager and voice their grievances,” he adds.
Tractor driver Adarian Timbo has been donning a helmet and safety vest while on duty for the past seven months.
“I think eventually we got used to it. It’s for our own safety anyway,” says Adarian, 43, of Kendari, Sulawesi. One way the company tries to drum it into the workers to wear protective clothing is to fine them RM10 per person if their forget.
Kumar finds that there are a lot less minor accidents in the estate since the guidelines are put in place. “Also when you ask workers to wear helmets and safety jackets, they tend to be more safety conscious. Now our harvesters never leave their house without sickle and tool covers,” Kumar explains. “You see a system taking place. But of course there’s more we can do.
The chemical sprayers and ‘manurers’ (the workers who apply fertilizers) are exposed to chemicals on a daily basis. Some of them suffer from itchy skins due to chemical contact.
“Now they have to wear gloves, mask and appropriate clothing to protect themselves,” says foreman Marwiyah Kaba who supervises her team of sprayers. “But many of them complained that it’s too hot to don the ‘uniform.’ I told them, ‘if you’re hot and tired, just take a break.’ And they’re more conscious about not spraying pesticide or applying fertilizer near water sources like river or streams.”
One and half year down the road, Keresa workers and staff are starting to reap the benefits from the RSPO implementations.
“Now we have access to potable water (via water treatment plant with three filtering processes) and 24-hour electricity supply,” says Samsudin who has been with Keresa for six years now.
The first phase of the terraced brickhouses have been completed in April 2009 and the rest are scheduled to complete soon. The new mosque is almost ready and a church will follow suit. Majority of the workers are from different parts of Indonesia – Sulawesi, Makassar, Lombok, Java and Timur. More than half of them are Muslims while the rest are Christians.
Workers get to take part in recreational activities with the football and volleyball fields, and badminton cum community hall. For the recent Hari Raya celebration, the workers held a Raya feast and dance performances at the community hall. A new clinic has also been constructed. There are two full-time medical assistants who tend to minor illness and injuries.
The longest serving employee at Keresa, Sutardi Sutarjo of Surabaya, Indonesia, has witnessed the changes the company had gone through in his 19 years here.
“In the past, we didn’t have electricity or potable water or recreational facilities,” Sutardi, 36, who now works as the estate’s driver. He drives the general manager or sick employees to hospital or send the staff’s kids to school daily.
“Following these ‘new’ safety/operating guidelines seemed difficult at first but if we think it’s for our own good, we approach it differently,” says Sutardi. “I think the infrastructure has improved tremendously. I’m very comfortable and contented.”
Since the company took on the RSPO challenge, administrative officer Robert Rintong finds his work has more than doubled. There are tons of documentation and filing he has to take care of.
“For the past five or six years, we’ve been struggling with our filing system,” admits Robert, 34. “But since we implemented RSPO, we’ve discovered a proper filing system for important documents.”
[pullquote style="right"]Getting ideas across to the staff is challenging, especially my junior staff who are not that well educated[/pullquote]
But the journey so far hasn’t been just a bed of roses, as Kumar admits.
“Getting ideas across to the staff is challenging, especially my junior staff who are not that well educated,” says Kumar. Most of the field conductors, for example, are from the longhouse community adjacent to the plantation.
“I wanted to provide the longhouse kids who didn’t do well in school the opportunity to become field supervisors. Those who were jobless would just ended up laying about all day in the longhouse.”
Though some instructions like no spraying along the riverbank are handed out, the staff tended to take them lightly.
“So we have to suspend them from work for a couple of days. Then they know we’re serious about it,” says Kumar. He also finds the lack of follow-up from his management staff frustrating.
“Sometimes I feel it’s only me going around shouting and screaming. When an assistant or manager passes a tractor driver who’s not wearing his helmet, the manager can’t see it,” says Kumar. “The main challenge for me is for my managers and staff to implement RSPO with the same wavelengths. Then I can achieve our vision.”
The cost of running the plantation has also increased in the past two years. The PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) like gloves, helmets and vests need to be replaced due to wear and tear. There is also lots of road repairs and upkeep.
“The only way to maintain our cost of production is to increase our yields to cover these additional costs,” says Kumar. When Keresa eventually receives their RSPO certification, they’re next challenge is to maintain it.
“We’ll need Wild Asia to come at least twice a year to keep us on our toes, at least until these good practices become a norm for us.”
Spreading the gospel
It took Kumar about one and half years to change his mind about the benefits of RSPO.
“I would say 99% of planters are against RSPO. Just because they’re employed by companies who want to do it, they have to,” says Kumar.
“Now I’m telling them it’s good for you because you’ll have a consistent set of workers because they know the employer is taking care of them. When some of them return home, they’ll tell their friends and bring in more people.”
And as Kumar’s boss, Graeme Iain Brown, Keresa managing director) says, RSPO is beyond just getting certification and a premium for the crops.
“If we get it, it’s good, if not, at least we’re doing something humane and taking care of the next generation.”