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Malaysia Farms Face $3 Billion Hit From Palm Oil Worker Shortage

  • Covid travel restrictions block cross-border flow of laborers
  • Controversial oil is country’s biggest agricultural export
Workers use palm fruit spears to remove bad bunches from a pile in Pahang, Malaysia.
Workers use palm fruit spears to remove bad bunches from a pile in Pahang, Malaysia.Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg
Updated on

The coronavirus pandemic has left Malaysia’s palm oil industry without enough workers, a shortage that could cost farmers as much as 25% of their annual production -- a loss worth about $2.8 billion.

Malaysia’s economy relies on palm oil, its most important agricultural commodity, but palm oil needs migrant workers from Indonesia, Bangladesh and India to do jobs locals won’t. As countries in Southeast Asia struggle to get the Covid-19 outbreak under control, governments have tightened restrictions on travel for workers both coming and going.