Union in SFI set for court battle for recognition

Catherine Jikunan & Sabah MTUC

Modified 11 Jun 2015, 7:53 am

A 24-year fight by workers of Sabah Forest Industries (SFI) for their right to union recognition may come to a head soon as the Kota Kinabalu High Court will hear on June 19, 2015 whether to grant the company leave for application for a judicial review affecting the matter.

SFI filed a judicial review on 14 May, 2015 seeking to quash a ministerial order on the eligibility of employees who can vote in a secret ballot election on whether they wanted to be represented by the Sabah Timber Industry Employees Union (STIEU) following the latter’s second bid on March 17 last year to gain the company’s recognition.

STIEU is working closely with the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) to face the legal challenge brought by Sipitang-based SFI.

SFI workers had filed three times for their union to be recognised: in 2003 under the now-defunct Sabah Forest Industries Employees Union (SFIEU); and in 2010 and on March 17 last year under STIEU. The SFI management had successfully filed for judicial review pertaining to the matter twice.

MTUC had been hopeful that SFI would proceed with the secret ballot election, as ordered by the Human Resources Ministry after STIEU’s latest claim for recognition. Instead, this judicial review - SFI’s third - was the response. A judicial review is a costly and intimidating process for the workers, but it is SFI’s comfort zone as it has all the resources for it.

Meanwhile, STIEU, as an affiliate of the Building and Wood Workers International (BWI), supported a complaint filed by the latter with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) against SFI’s parent company BILT Graphic Paper Products for possible breach of association in relation to SFI’s anti-union practices.

The FSC is one of the global certification systems that set standards under which forests and companies are certified. The standards include compliance to International Labour Organisation (ILO) core conventions 87 and 98 on freedom of association and collective bargaining, respectively.

The complaint against BILT is on non-compliance as workers in its India subsidiaries are allowed to form unions, but not those in its Malaysia subsidiary. As a result of the BWI complaint, the FSC is reaching out to SFI for mediation.

BWI had also submitted a similar complaint to the International Finance Corporation (IFC) regarding this matter as the latter gives financial support to SFI. Adherence to ILO Core Convention 87 is a mandatory IFC Performance Standard 2.

However, despite an IFC mission to the company on April 29, the management has not taken any steps to comply to it and is proceeding with the judicial review next week.

CATHERINE JIKUNAN is secretary, Sabah division of MTUC.