Members of Sabah Timber Industry Employees Union (STIEU) have emerged victorious from the Kota Kinabalu Federal Court in Sabah (Malaysia), their latest victory on their long-running path to union recognition. The Federal Court has dismissed the appeal of Sabah Forest Industries (SFI), which attempted to further slow the union recognition process by judicially reviewing decisions taken by the Minister of Human Resources, which had previously directed SFI to recognise the union. SFI have now exhausted their available appeals on this matter, and arrangements will soon begin for the secret ballot so workers can vote on union representation.
“The Federal Court has spoken clearly in the name of justice for Sabah’s timber workers, defending their right to freedom of association. At this stage SFI has no legal justification for continuing to deny the rights of its workers to form a union and begin bargaining collectively”, said STIEU General Secretary Engrit Liaw. “We are appealing to SFI’s parent companies – BILT and the Avantha Group – to say enough is enough. It is time they stepped in and directed SFI to recognise the union and get on with forging harmonious industrial relations.”
This victory is the latest in a long-string of legal victories, following a similar victory in May 2017 at the Sabah Court of Appeal. SFI have also been stripped of both their FSC timber certification (the first time a company has had its certificate removed on labour rights issues) and their PEFC timber certification. They are currently being investigated by the compliance watchdog of the World Bank’s private finance arm (the International Finance Corporation, IFC), regarding whether IFC adequately discharged their due diligence duties in light of the the freedom of association issues.
The legal issue that SFI had appealed was a decision made by the Minister Human Resources regarding the list of workers eligible to be included to meet the current legal threshold for union recognition (a 50%+1 majority). The court affirmed that the decision made by the Minister adequately discharged his duty prescribed under the Industrial Relations Act.
"This case should serve as a wake-up call for Putrajaya that Malaysia’s industrial relations framework needs to be brought into the twenty-first century”, said Liaw. “The threshold required for union recognition remains exceptionally high, and there are myriad options available for litigious employers to drag out the process indefinitely. This is not right.”
STIEU believes that Malaysia’s industrial relations framework needs an overhaul to bring it in line with international standards. While SFI have exhausted their legal options on this particular issue, once the secret ballot proceeds and the Minister demands SFI recognize the union, they are still able to demand a judicial review into this Ministerial decision.
“Unless the rules are changed then the powerful will continue to use the courts to prevent the powerless from exercising their rights to freedom of association”, said BWI Regional Representative Apolinar Tolentino. “The current rules reinforce the existing power dynamic, keeping wages low and preventing meaningful collective action on health and safety. It is time for a change to ensure workers’ rights are not illusory, and workers can collectively bargain to improve their living and working conditions.”
“It is time for SFI’s parents – BILT and the Avantha Group – to step in and change the attitude SFI has taken towards the union”, continued Tolentino. “The systematic denial of workers’ rights is no way to run a successful company. They must start to live up to their proclaimed values of ‘following ethical business practices’ and ‘empowering and stimulating employees to reach their potential’ and join the call for union recognition, or risk getting left behind by the global market for sustainable timber."