KUALA LUMPUR: THE Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on the lives of millions of workers all around the world, as a result of national lockdowns and the closure of international borders.
Millions of migrant workers around the world have been stranded, either unable to travel back to their home countries or unable to return to the countries in which they have chosen to work.
This has also greatly affected foreign workers in Malaysia's palm oil sector.
With the welfare of its workers in mind, Sime Darby Plantation Berhad (SDP) decided to take the necessary steps to facilitate and expedite the repatriation of its workers back to their home countries.
“Cognisant of the unprecedented circumstances and the challenges presented, we decided that the welfare of our workers was of paramount importance and that we would take all necessary steps to find equitable solutions,” said SDP's group managing director Helmy Othman Basha.
"The welfare of our workers is our top priority, even when they are returning home. We will always respect their rights and ensure that they are able to return home safely, regardless of the circumstances,” he added.
Beginning in July, when the Immigration Department began allowing foreign workers to return home, SDP has successfully repatriated 1125 foreign workers, mainly from Indonesia, India, Bangladesh and Nepal, from its operations nationwide.
Most recently, SDP successfully sent 149 of its estate workers back to Kolkata, India, on a specially chartered flight.
As Indian borders remain restricted, SDP worked in partnership with various agencies including Malaysia Airlines (MAS), the Malaysian Immigration Department, the Indian Embassy, authorities at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) as well as authorities in India, to facilitate the repatriation exercise. SDP bore the cost of the entire exercise.
At all times, SDP adhered to guidelines set by the Health Ministry and the World Health Organisation (WHO). All workers underwent the compulsory Covid-19 tests, and the authorities were notified of the results within 72 hours before departure.
"The Covid-19 pandemic has made it difficult for workers like me to travel home. I have been with Sime Darby Plantation's Cenas Estate for four years now, and my tenure ended in August. Thanks to this chartered flight, the travel arrangements have been made easy for us," said Rabin Mondal from Kolkata, India.
“While some of our workers have opted to continue working with us, this has always been a personal choice, without any compulsion or coercion to do so. All our foreign workers are appointed through a contract which provides a fixed term of employment and allows them to return to their home countries once their contracts have ended.
“The contract also provides an option for their employment to be extended yearly, up to a maximum of 10 years, subject to mutual agreement between SDP and the worker, as well as approval by the Malaysian Immigration. For workers who request for extensions of their work permits, we offer incentives to show our appreciation for their services and the value we place in their contributions.
“As a token of our appreciation, we had also arranged for those workers who had been with us for over 10 years to travel on business class seats," said Helmy.
In the meantime, migrant workers whose permits have expired and are waiting to return home will continue to live on SDP's estates with free housing and subsidised utilities, while the company works to secure safe and efficient passage back to their home countries.
SDP has also assured all its foreign workers that they will continue to receive insurance coverage, even if their work permits have expired. Additionally, SDP's migrant workers have ready access to use the Company's 'Suara Kami' Workers' helpline if they have any grievances about their repatriation.
Samad Sek, 48, from Durgapur in West Bengal, India, had requested to go home in November after working with the company for more than 10 years.
"I have been with Sime Darby Plantation's North Labis Estate for over 10 years. I have worked here happily, and now I am ready to go home. I am glad I am able to go back on this chartered flight. I will be talking to my family and friends back home and encourage them to join the SDP workforce because the salary and work have both been good for me.`