This morning a number of workers held a picket at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur where the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is currently holding its board meeting. The workers protested against FSC’s lack of action against workers’ rights violations at Sabah Forest industries (SFI), owned by the India-based Ballapur Industries Ltd (BILT).
“We are very disappointed with the FSC. We had such high hopes that the FSC would act speedily. We have practically exhausted all possible local and national mechanisms to persuade the management to allow us to collectively exercise our right to join a union of their own choosing,” said Engrit Liaw, general secretary of the Sabah Timber Industries Employees Union that have been struggling to get the company to recognize their union since 1999.
The protest was organised by Malaysian affiliates of the Building and Wood Workers International and the Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC).
“The FSC is claiming that adherence to the Principles and Criteria on Workers’ Rights is an explicitly mandatory requirement for the issuance of certification. Yet the experience of SFI workers appears to show otherwise,” said MTUC’s president Mohd Khalid Atan, who further explained that the workers were expressing their dissatisfaction with the failure of the FSC to act on a complaint against the India-based Ballapur Industries Ltd (BILT), which owns Sabah Forest Industries (SFI) Sdn Bhd.
Meanwhile, the lack of union protection has cast a heavy toll on SFI workers. Two workers died and two others were injured, one seriously, in three separate accidents at the plant in the past month alone.
“We have demanded an inclusive, transparent and thorough investigation into both accidents last month, following the first two accidents which included one fatality. Until today the SFI management has yet to inform us of anything. And now, there has been a third death, which happened last Saturday,” said MTUC Sabah secretary Catherine Jikunan.
Khalid explained that SFI workers have been trying to unionise since 1999, when they first set up an in-house union.
“But when the in-house union sought recognition in 2003, the management filed a Judicial Review in 2006 to challenge the ministry’s competency assessment of union membership. The Ministry did not defend itself in court at that time so we lost before we could even try”.
“SFI workers then changed tactics and decided to dissolve the in-house union to join the state-wide Sabah Timber Industries Employees Union (STIEU) in 2009. But even after that, SFI still filed a second judicial review in 2011, challenging the 2010 secret ballot result that revealed an overwhelming 85.9 per cent support from SFI workers for STIEU as their union.”
Khalid revealed that although SFI lost the case at the High Court, it won the appeal against it. But there was more to come.
“SFI filed a third judicial review on 13 May 2015, following STIEU’s new claim for recognition, again challenging the Human Resources Minister’s order to the company to accord recognition to STIEU to represent eligible SFI workers,” he said.
“That’s three judicial reviews in a span of 9 years, which has effectively prevented SFI workers from getting true union representation!”
He accused BILT of practicing double standards, which would not be in compliance with International Labour Organization core conventions that are part of the FSC certification requirement.
“One the one hand, BILT allows workers in its plants in Ballapur, India, to form unions, while on the other hand it heavily suppresses SFI employees in Sipitang, Sabah, from being represented by a union of their own choosing, namely STIEU.
“This is a violation of the ILO Convention 98 on Collective Bargaining, which Malaysia has ratified,” said Khalid.
STIEU’s general secretary Engrit Liaw described how BWI, with whom STIEU is affiliated, had complied with the FSC dispute mechanisms to lodge the complaint against SFI in 2013. But the FSC –accredited certification body, the Rainforest Alliance (RA), continued issuing the certification SFI even though publicly available records showed SFI had twice used the judicial review, at that time, to thwart the order of the Human Resources Ministry that was in favour of the union.
“We have had meetings with SFI representatives, including the chair of the SFI board. We offered ideas on how business and trade unions co-exist for the overall and long-term benefit of the company. But the management insists it will only recognise an in-house union now,” she said.
“Our last hope is the FSC. We really hope FSC will expedite the complaint lodged against BILT before it is too late. As how it was for the case against SFI.”
Khalid said SFI’s FSC certificate expired in February this year, which has basically let the Malaysian company off the hook as the FSC would not be able to raise issues of non-conformances against a former client. However, the BILT certificate is still in effect and FSC can take action there.
“To keep its organisational integrity as an international certification body, the FSC has to ensure that BILT is sanctioned based on the FSC Policy for Association,” he insisted.
Besides the MTUC, the protesters were from STIEU, Timber Employees Union of Peninsular Malaysia (TEUPM) and Building and Wood Workers International (BWI).
Later today, the STIEU executive committee and members who are in Sipitang, Sabah, will gather in protest T-shirts to also express outrage at three recent accidents in SFI, which caused two fatalities. BWI’s Indian affiliates aslo plans to hold a roving picket at the BILT headquarters in Ballapur.
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