Malaysian union continues organising despite threats and harassment

The Timber Employees Union of Peninsula Malaysia (TEUPM) in Ekowood, considered one of Malaysia’s most successful hardwood flooring companies, continued to organize workers despite attempts by the management to undermine it. The union said that management has continuously attempted to sabotage workers’ desire to be represented in collective bargaining by frustrating union elections on two separate occasions.

TEUPM said that since 2016, it has made several attempts to be voluntarily recognised by Ekowood, which holds ISO, FSC and PEFC chain of custody certificates. The union said that with the certificates, the company has committed to observe local Malaysian law and respect workers’ rights to form or join a union of their choice and the right to collective bargaining. However, TEUPM General Secretary Azlan bin Yaacob said that the company has decided to actively undermine the union, specifically by hindering its conduct of union elections. 

On 4 September 2019, a secret ballot union election was organised by the Industrial Relations Department and agreed by both parties. However, management invited workers, many of whom are Nepali and Bangladeshi migrant workers, to a team-building outing on the same day. Another union election was set on 8 October. Management reportedly escalated its anti-union efforts with the discovery of an audio recording allegedly from a meeting of workers organised by management wherein a manager was caught on tape identifying and threatening workers who would vote in favour of the union with income and housing denial, and even deportation.

“As most of Ekowood’s workers are migrants whose immigration statuses are connected to their employment, thy are vulnerable to this these kinds of threats,” Yaacob said.  

TEUPM reported this to the Industrial Relations Department and warned that the company will attempt again to sabotage the rescheduled union election. The BWI Asia-Pacific office in Kuala Lumpur contacted the Malaysian Timber Certification Council (MTCC) and the Malaysian national affiliate of PEFC International. As a result, the MTCC sent a letter to the certificate holder on 3 October warning the possibility of serious infringement of its standard requirements if Ekowood will continue interfering with workers’ rights. 

Undeterred, the Ekowood management continued threatening and harassing migrant workers on the day of the union election which also coincided with the SGS conducting its FSC Controlled wood audit on the company.  

BWI Asia-Pacific Regional Representative Apolinar Tolentino said that both the FSC and PEFC’s certifications require that all companies using their logos to respect workers’ rights protected by International Labour Organisation core conventions, including the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. He said that they have followed up with SGS Malaysia and SGS South Africa (which are responsible for the FSC certification), and FSC and MTCC. They called on the management to cease all its anti-union efforts and let the workers vote freely.