Malaysia ’s labour-reliant palm oil companies are looking to recruit recovering drug addicts and prisoners to solve a severe shortage of foreign workers that has worsened in the wake of a pandemic-driven border closure. Planters in the world’s second-largest palm oil producer have in recent months embarked on rare recruitment drives to hire locals to do everything from harvesting to fertilising, but response has been lukewarm. As durian demand spikes, are Malaysian farmers paying the price? “We are even reaching out to Department of Orang Asli Development, the Drug Prevention Association of Malaysia, as well as the Prisons Department in search of locals,” industry group the Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA) said in a statement on Tuesday evening. The collaboration with the Prisons Department to recruit parolees and prisoners under supervision first started in 2016 in one government-linked firm, but now more companies are interested in the programme, said chief executive Nageeb Wahad. Some plantation firms are also in discussions with the Drug Prevention Association of Malaysia to recruit recovering addicts in rehabilitation, he said. Travel and movement restrictions have left the Southeast Asian nation grappling with a shortage of 37,000 workers, nearly 10 per cent of the total workforce. Migrants from Indonesia and Bangladesh make up nearly 85 per cent of plantation hands in an industry locals typically shun as dirty, dangerous and difficult . The MPOA wants to rebrand the industry as “dignified, disciplined and decent”. As Malaysia’s lockdown lifts, migrant workers return to dangers of life in ‘3D’ A dearth of workers, especially during the peak production season in September-November, will hurt output by delaying the harvest of perishable fruit, giving an edge to No 1 producer Indonesia which has no such labour problems. The MPOA estimated that the industry has lost up to 30 per cent of its potential yield because of the labour crunch, and pegged the country’s crude palm oil output to be much lower than last year’s 19.9 million tonnes. “We have to utilise all available alternatives [to recruit locals … but if we fail, we would need the government to help us,” Nageeb said.