Malaysia is the fourth biggest producer of natural rubber
in the world and by far the biggest producer of disposable rubber gloves. But while rubber glove makers made record profits last year in the face of a pandemic-driven surge in demand, the smallholders that produce nearly all Malaysia's rubber are suffering from continued low prices for the rubber
they tap. Rian Maelzer has the story.
Liquid latex makes up only around six percent of Malaysia's rubber production. The rest is what's called "cup lumps" – latex that's coagulated in the collection cups.
Around 70 percent of Malaysia's natural rubber is exported to China, mostly for its tire-making industry.
RIAN MAELZER Kuala Lumpur "But Malaysia's rubber glove industry needs liquid latex, most of which it imports from Thailand."
Malaysia's government is looking for ways to encourage local smallholders to collect latex, which sells for about a 30 percent premium over cup lumps. But it won't be easy.
DR. SIVAKUMARAN SEENIVASAGAM Rubber Industry Expert "He will collect his cup lumps once a week or once in two weeks, whereas for latex, he will have to collect it couple of hours after he's completed tapping. So it's very physically strenuous and demanding on him."
UMADEVI Rubber Smallholder "I was also collecting cup lumps. But the boss here at the depot told me 'you won't make much money from that. If you collect latex you can earn more and increase your income.'"
After countries rushed to expand their cultivation when prices soared a decade ago, there's been a global oversupply of natural rubber, depressing prices.
DR SIVAKUMARAN SEENIVASAGAM Rubber Industry Expert "The Malaysian Rubber Board is finding more uses for natural rubber. It's a very big focus of the R&D. Rubberized bitumen for roads, then they have non-slip soles for slippers, and natural-rubber based paints."
Growers accept that they just won't see any of the benefits of the glove makers' windfall.
RIDZAWDIN ASHAARY Rubber
Smallholder "I heard about it. But what can we do about it as ordinary people? This is our lot in life."
NG MOOK MEONG Rubber Smallholder "If the weather is ok, then our income is ok and we can still survive."
Merely surviving while glove makers thrive, the reality in a country that no longer leads the world the natural rubber production, but now leads it in the rubber glove making. Rian Maelzer, CGTN, Kuala Lumpur.