Be flexible with foreign labour rules'


Allow agricultural sector workers to hold multiple duties: employers'

STAKEHOLDERS involved in the agricultural sector and related industries voiced various concerns during a briefing and dialogue session with government officials yesterday, which included calling for multiple roles for foreign workers employed for a specific duty.

Hj Zainal Hj Safar, who owns a 15-acre farm, said foreign workers' employment permit should be more flexible to allow them to hold a broader role, rather than a single duty as stipulated in the permit.

"We cannot hire so many workers because I am only selling agricultural products. The price of vegetables is getting lower and I cannot afford to hire more workers who are only able to perform one specific role," he told The Brunei Times in an interview after a briefing organised by the Department of Agriculture and Agrifood (DAA) yesterday.

"For example, the permit only allows the worker to do farming. But at the same time, he cannot do selling of the produce."

"Also, when we have to leave the country or premise for a while, we have no choice but to engage our foreign workers to perform other duties (in our place). This is when we risk the Law Enforcement officers' inspection," he said.

A landscape and garden business owner, Hjh Halus Hj Karim of Hadfa Enterprise, echoed similar sentiments. She said in addition to the need of hiring more workers, proprietors are faced with high rates charged by employment agencies for bringing in foreign workers. "We have to pay about $2,000 to employment agencies, another $600 to the government department, and additional costs such as air tickets, lodgings and food," said Hjh Halus.

Both Hj Zainal and Hjh Halus claimed the plight is faced by most proprietors who cannot afford to pay the costs involved in hiring one foreign worker.

The predicament does not end after the owner has managed to secure a foreign worker. Hjh Halus explained that foreign workers are only allowed a two-year permit to work in the country. "After we spend a large sum to bring them in, we can only employ them for two years. This is after the effort we spent in training them to be skilled," she shared.

"It is difficult to hire foreign workers because we have to pay the agent fee. It is not affordable. And when they come in, some of them are not experienced," Hj Zainal added.

Hjh Halus added, "It is too expensive. We pay the employment agent, air tickets, food and lodgings. But what do we get? After two years, we train them, then they go back?"

Although contract renewal is possible, Hjh Halus said it takes time and in most cases, foreign workers are reluctant to do so due to low wages. When enquired on hiring local workers as substitute, the owners are faced with the dilemma of local workers unable to cope with the nature of the work.

"We would prefer to hire local workers but in the agricultural industry, locals do not want to work under the sun. The low pay also deters them," Hj Zainal remarked.

Another proprietor and manager in the farming and trading business expressed his wish to hire local workers but is restricted by what is on offer. "We do prefer local workers because we do not need to give them accommodation or pay to bring them in," said Hj Mohd Salleh Hj Yaakub of Syarikat Hj Mohd Salleh & Anak-Anak.

"But it is important for us to hire foreign workers. No locals want to go to a farm and work. I am using local workers at the moment but they chang from one to another every month. They never stay longer," said Hj Mohd Salleh.

"One is working with me for more than two months but I have to pick him up and down from his home to work. I ended up as his driver but what can I do? I want to comply with the government's requirement," he said.

"Furthermore, in vegetable farming, foreign workers like Indonesians are very skilled," said the farmer.

Four years ago, Hj Mohd Salleh committed the offence of allowing his foreign workers to perform duties not stated in their permit. "It was flooding at the time. So I brought my workers to assist me in my other business. I was scared that if I was unable to pay their salary, the punishment would be heavier than if I had wrongly used them. In my view, I was using my workers under my business but in a different section," he shared.

Hj Mohd Salleh admitted his mistake but explained he had paid his dues and has been trying to renew his foreign workers quota without success in the last four years. "It has affected my business. I have not been able to get any explanation from the relevant department why my application has not been approved," he said.

"I hope the relevant department can assist us in order to prevent local businesses from committing further mistakes. If we cannot find a way out of this, we have no choice but to resort to other means to meet the demands of our workforce. If not, my business will fail," Hj Mohd Salleh expressed.

Hj Mohd Yaassin Said, owner of a farming business, Mizu Enterprise, supported Hj Mohd Salleh statement. He claimed he had encountered difficulties when trying to renew his foreign worker's contract and was not provided proper explanation for it. He strongly urged government agencies and relevant departments to support local businesses in terms of facilitating the hiring of foreign workers.

Hj Mohd Salleh said information provided at the briefing was "helpful" especially on new regulations but "not helpful in settling my case" and problems faced by his counterparts. The Brunei Times

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