Ageing agro-workforce could trigger food crisis, says deputy minister

Agriculture and Agro-based Industries Deputy Minister Datuk Seri Tajuddin Abdul Rahman (right) said 60 per cent of the current workforce in the agro-based industry are already over 60 years old. — Picture by Kamles Kumar
Agriculture and Agro-based Industries Deputy Minister Datuk Seri Tajuddin Abdul Rahman (right) said 60 per cent of the current workforce in the agro-based industry are already over 60 years old. — Picture by Kamles Kumar

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 15 — Young Malaysian workers’ continued avoidance of agri-food industries could push the country towards a food crisis, Agriculture and Agro-based Industries Deputy Minister Datuk Seri Tajuddin Abdul Rahman warned today.

The Pasir Salak MP said 60 per cent of the current workforce in the agro-based industry are already over 60 years old, and the problem could further worsen the country’s dependence on imports and ultimately government spending.

“It’s like a car. If you don’t have the engine, the car cannot move. Then? I don’t have to say it. You can say it on your own,” Tajuddin told reporters here when asked by the press if the young labour shortage could trigger a food crisis.

Only 15 per cent of the agro-food sector workforce are below 40.

Tajuddin in his speech to the Farmers Authority Organisation (LPP) here noted that the government is already spending billions of ringgit yearly to import basic food products like rice and beef.

The import costs of the goods has also shot up by 30 per cent due to ringgit’s sharp drop, and that there is a possibility that Putrajaya could be forced to spend more if the country’s agri-food industry fails to confront its problems.

“Another thing is technology. That is another matter. If we have the technology then we could at least reduce dependency on labourers,” Tajuddin said.

The deputy minister said most farmers have yet to adapt to the technological changes in agriculture while some have refused to work with machines. Manual harvesting and planting are more labour intensive and time consuming.

Putrajaya is targeting zero-dependency on food imports by 2020. For over a decade the government has been pushing farmers to adopt "tech-farming" but the policy has yet to pick up speed.

Tajuddin said today Malaysia has what it takes to meet that target but "poor attitude", an ageing workforce and technological lax has created setbacks.

"The old ones, what do they do? They don't even go down to the fields and work harder. They just hang around the coffee shops instead of doing work," the deputy minister said.

At the same time, Tajuddin noted the plantation sector is reliant on foreign labour, despite acknowledging the opposition to Putrajaya's migrant labour policy.

"You tell me, what can we do? What can the government do? The youth don't want to work in this sector," he said.

Despite objectios, the Najib administration is expected to bring in 1.5 million workers from Bangladesh in phases that could stretch up to five years.

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi defended the move recently, saying the intake was necessary to meet market demand.

He said Putrajaya had to import the workers as Malaysians tend to avoid employment in hard labour industries.

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