Women Plantation Workers Poisoned and Silenced

In 2002, the Malaysian organization Tenaganita, together with Pesticide
Action Network-Asia Pacific launched a study that confirmed that women
plantation workers were being poisoned by the use of highly toxic
pesticides, especially paraquat.

At the launching of the "Study of Pesticides Poisoning in the
Plantations", Tenaganita Director, Dr. Irene Fernandez said that "If
the Malaysian government had, through its enforcement agencies the
Department of Occupational Safety and Health and the Pesticides Board, effectively
implemented the laws the women would not have suffered."

What the Malaysian state actually did do in October 2003 was to
imprison Irene Fernandez in relation with a previous study carried out by her
organization: "Abuse , Torture and Dehumanized Treatment of Migrant
Workers in Detention Centres". Accused of "maliciously publishing false
news", she is still in prison serving a 12 month sentence (see article

When she is eventually released, will she be again accused of "maliciously
publishing false news" in relation with the more recent study on the
condition of women plantation workers which are "poisoned and silenced"
by the oil palm industry? The possibility is very real, given the powerful
economic interests involved in the Malaysian oil palm sector.

However, the study's findings can in no way be considered as "false",
and they are totally consistent with the information on working conditions
in oil palm plantation in both Malaysia and elsewhere. The peculiarity in
this case is the strong presence of women affected by standard
operations of these companies regarding pesticide use.

The study proves that women sprayers working in plantations in Malaysia
are poisoned by the pesticides they spray daily. It also reaffirms that
the living conditions in plantations are poor, medical care is
inadequate and that estate management is oblivious and often unsympathetic towards
the social and health problems faced by workers.

The common symptoms noted among women plantation workers were fatigue,
vomiting, back pain, giddiness, difficulty in breathing, skin problems,
nausea, eye irritation, headache, tight feeling in the chest, and
swelling, which are indicative of exposure to organophosphate and
carbamate type of pesticides. Blood samples revealed a depression in
the acetyl cholinesterase enzyme activity, which is confirmation of
pesticide poisoning. The study also confirmed that the sample population was
spraying organophosphate-type pesticides, indicated by a lowering of
the acetyl cholinesterase levels in plasma and blood. After a one-month
break in spraying, enzyme levels of selected sprayers were elevated,
reconfirming that they were poisoned by organophosphate when the
readings were taken a month earlier.

The study confirmed that a major pesticide used in the plantations is
Paraquat (a herbicide). Poisoning due to Paraquat is clearly
demonstrated in the surveys and interviews with workers, and indicated in the
medical examinations. The women suffered nose bleeds, tearing of the eyes,
contact dermatitis, skin irritation and sores, nail discolouration, dropping of
the nails, swelling of the joints, and abdominal ulcerations. This in
spite of the fact that Malaysia has classified paraquat as Class I
(extremely hazardous) pesticide. To make matters worse, the study noted
that the area planted to oil palm is expected to rise from 2.7 million
ha (1998) to 4.3 million ha in 2020, with a subsequent rise in the use of
agrochemicals. Paraquat use is expected to rise from 5 million litres
(2000) to 7.4 million litres in 2020.

The study found that women working in the plantations could not read
the labels in English and Malay, and could not read labels on the pesticide
containers if these were present. In the majority of cases labels are
removed. It was commonly seen that pesticides were used in
concentrations in excess of requirements; in 'cocktails' whose ingredients were not
known; and often the estate management chose not to divulge the names
of pesticides used, to the sprayers.

Additionally, the spraying equipment was sometimes leaking, and posed
additional dangers of spillage and toxicity to the sprayers. Further,
the equipment was stored in workers homes, adding risk to the whole family.

The study also found that estate management did not provide training on
safety precautions and procedures to be followed while handling
pesticides. There were no training materials available in local
languages for workers and medical professionals. The protective gear provided, if
any, was inappropriate to the local hot and humid conditions and is
thus not used by most sprayers. These factors aggravated the risk factor for
working in plantations.

To make matters worse, the study noted that medical professionals were
not adequately trained to recognize symptoms of pesticide exposure and
often disregarded these as minor complaints of cough, headaches etc. This
further underestimated the real picture regarding poisoning
attributable to pesticide exposure. There was an alarming lack of sensitivity among
medical staff, paramedics and Hospital Assistants, which compounded
their inability to deal with the women's problems. Since the majority of the
medical staff were male, the women were unable to express and share
their condition and ailments.

Will all the above be considered as "maliciously publishing false news"?
Shouldn't the Malaysian government and its enforcement agencies -the
Department of Occupational Safety and Health and the Pesticides Board-
be instead accused of "maliciously silencing true allegations"?

Article based on information from: "Women Plantation Workers Poisoned
and Silenced"., Tenaganita/PAN-Asia Pacific, 2002,
"A Study of Pesticide Poisoning in the Plantations", Tenaganita/PAN-Asia
Pacific, 2002