The cost of hiring foreign workers is rising in Malaysia and will continue to rise. In 2018, employers will have to pay levy for the workers through the Employers Mandatory Committment or EMC that will come into force after it was postponed from 2017. As far as turfgrass maintenance in golf course, football fields, parks, lawn, roadside and wherever else goes, I would have liked to say “Now is the time to look for local workers with specialised training and/or interest” but from experience, such advice aren’t taken well by employers and many will have their side of the story regarding employing local workers too. Even if it didn’t happen to them, they know who it happened to, or at least they know who can tell you who it happened too or maybe, they remember someone telling them the story.
So I say, let’s reduce the need for staff regardless of local or foreign. The question is, how can we lower the number of staff required to maintain a football field, golf course, parks or even lawns? Well, here are some of my suggestions:
- Use artificial grass. You probably are thinking about the football field sized area with plastci turf but I am also pointing out that 75mm strip of grass between your kerb and the drain that you have to send a worker with a brushcutter to cut. Or that small area between your Ixora shrub and the kerb. Or that 300mm wide but 50 meter long between lamp-posts. Artificial grass needs no mowing and very little maintenance. There are of course pros and cons for using artificial grass on playing fields but they matter little to the areas I mentioned.
Benefits:it will look neater and prettier. Depending on how much of your area is planted with this small areas, you may cut down from 0 to 10% of your existing staff.
Disadvantages, these small pieces of plastic turf can be difficult to install.
- Plant less trees. I know, it sounds contrarian right? The thing is, trees create shade that forces grass to extend their leaves upward to look for more sunlight, creating more mowing needs. More trees will also reduce opportunities to mechanise your mowing thereby increasing your worker population. Plus, the roots of some trees (Khaya and Raintree anyone?) grow out of the soil and will damage mower blades, walkways, paths, even roads. If you need a lot of trees, remember how big they become five or ten years later and plant so that the canopies of the trees are just touching each other.
Benefits: for large areas like golf course rough or parks, up to 50% of the staff dedicated to that area, if you implement mechanization.
Disadvantages: in the beginning, your golf course or park is going to look empty when the trees are young. Resist the temptation to fill in the gaps! When the trees grow older, they need more space.
- Be creepy. For steep slopes that can’t be mown with a machine, use creepers like Wedelias or Arachis pinto. Or perhaps even Weeping Lovegrass or even leaving it unmaintained but managed (I have a no creeper, volunteer oil palm or small trees policy in these ‘wild’ areas).
Benefits: do it right and you give more color to a simple slope. You can save a lot of manpower here. This is where the need for foreign workers is highest.
Disadvantages:well rumours of snakes (honest. That’s what a worker told me though he admits he never saw one. Also, once a year, will still need to work on it.
- Slow down. Use plant growth regulators to slow down the growth of the grass. What it does is it shortens the internodes and makes the grass grow shorter.
Benefits: It has a side effect of creating denser stands of turf. You can cut down up to 30% of your mowing needs.
Disadvantages: you need to apply regularly to reap the benefits and this has cost even if the benefits outweigh the costs.
- Avoid urea. Actually, refrain from using too much nitrogen fertilising on your grass. Malaysian groundskeepers love using urea on their turfgrass because it gives them instant green-up. Of course it does, it contains 46% nitrogen! And nothing else! It’s like taking lots of vitamin C and no other vitamins. You’ll get diarrhoea but at least you have good skin. Ok, may be that’s not such a good example.
Benefit of not applying too much nitrogen: you don’t weaken your turfgrass yet assume that you are helping it grow with ‘fertiliser’. Why don’t you try not eating anything else except oranges; see how healthy you can be.
Disadvantages: less green colour on the grass.
I’m not saying you don’t fertilise, I’m just saying don’t use straight fertiliser with only one nutrient; example Urea!
Nitrogen fertilising gives surge growth that you have to mow aggresively.
- Some architecutur… architectural… some design changes. The kind that will help you reduce workers. It is best if you do it from the beginning but perhaps you can spend 2017 to reduce your dependence on workers by using the workers in redesigning your field. Some examples, have less steep slopes, for golf courses, don’t have so many bunkers, reduce small areas that need to be hand-mown; instead of having three 1-metre wide dividers with small trees at your parking lot, have one 2.5-metre wide divider with big trees for shade and use paint or concrete dividers for the rest.
- Mechanise. Use ride-on mowers instead of knapsack or push mowers or walk-behinds. On golf course greens, walk-behinds need more manpower. You can get around this by training all operators on walk-behinds so that they mow greens in the morning for two hours then they go to their normal jobs. It takes about 2-8 man-days to mow a football field with a push-mower but only four man-hours with a ride-on. Instead of using a few knapsack or handsprayers, consider using a calibrated boom sprayer.
- Use shrubs to reduce mowing or in places where grass is difficult to grow; for example under big trees or near building or small kerbs. We can use Rhoeo discolor or Iris or Spider Lilies or many others.
- Upskill or multiskilled. Train your existing workers or workers you want to keep so that they know more or can do more. Why have three workers that can only operate the ubiquitous brush-cutter, knapsack sprayer and scisssors when you can have one who can operate a ride-on mower, a hedge trimmer and a boom sprayer even if you have to pay two person’s salary for that one guy/girl. No one worker can do only one job “Everyone can do everything” was a motto I had when I reduced the staff number on my 18 holes from 42 labourers to 18 professionals in the 1990s.
- Rotate your poison. If you use herbicide to kill the grass at your border fence, kerbs or even drains in the name of saving manpower; avoid weed succession by using different kind of herbicides.
The list is of course a lot more but I guess you get it. I just wish the government would play ball and help out with the turfgrass mower tax and such. I mean, the government can earn a lot more when tourists come here to play golf than on the tax money from the sale of turfgrass equipment. In fact, I think the government would do well to subsidise or somehow reward any employer that can show the purchases they are going to make can reduce the number of workers by a certain percentage.
With the ringgit as it is now, it is expensive to buy turfgrass machinery. So now we are stuck with too expensive to use manpower and also too expensive to use manpower. What’s going to become of Malaysian golf courses eventually?
If you need help with planning any of the above; please do not hesitate to give me a call.