Bitter SFI Dilemma! Abandoned By Indian Owners, Ignored By State Govt

SIPITANG: Hundreds of daily-rated workers at the beleaguered Sabah Forest Industries have not got their salaries since January this year, while the executives and management have so far got half their pay packets.

And uncertainty about their future has put the 1,600 odd workers at the one-time state-owned pulp and paper mill in a quandary; with no sign of a solution in sight and their pleas ignored by the Barisan Nasional government.

“The majority of the workers are Sabahans, so we cannot understand why the state government is keeping quiet; our appeals have not been met with any response,” an SFI employee who requested anonymity told BorneoToday on Saturday.

“The leaders go about calling itself a caring government but here is a genuine case of our local workers being exploited by a foreign company and it looks like both state and federal officials just don’t give a thought.”

Members of the Sabah Timber Industries Employees Union (STIEU) who work at Sabah Forest Industries (SFI) pulp and paper mill in Sipitang have picketed on numerous occasions to highlight their plight, but to not avail.

The source also urged STIEU to push harder and be more vocal till the authorities concerned take note of the deplorable conditions of the local workforce.

The source said only critical sectors, like the power plant at the factory in Sipitang are being maintained, while other sections of the mill are virtually abandoned – “if there are problems it cannot be fixed as there are no spare part,” the source said.

On Friday, in a statement issued by the Sabah Timber Industries Employees Union (STIEU), its president Martin Andong said workers at SFI remain unclear as to the security of their employment.

“Every day we go to work, even though there is nothing to do. The mill has been shut down for months now”, said the STIEU chief.

An undated file photo of the SFI operations in Sipitang. It was created by the then Berjaya government before it was sold to the private sector by PBS, and who later disposed the company to Indian concerns.

“We read the news and it’s clear that the company’s Indian owner is in a poor financial situation. We want to get back to work but things are moving very slowly. It may be time for the state government to consider its options for intervention.”

Meanwhile STIEU general-secretary Engrit Liaw said members of the union are not surprised that SFI has been stripped of another certification label for their continued refusal to recognize the union.

“This confirms to us all that SFI’s continued attacks on workers’ rights are in violation with international labour standards”, she said.

“For almost three decades these workers have pursued the simple right to bargain collectively, however SFI have consistently used legal loopholes to avoid recognition.

STIEU members on yet another picket in this file photograph.

“The fact that this behaviour is not illegal reflects poorly on the Malaysian Government’s willingness to protect workers’ rights.”

The PEFC is the world’s largest forest certification system, and requires forest owners to uphold a set of labour standards including the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

According to the decision, SFI had chosen not to undergo the required surveillance audit and could not provide evidence of conformance to the requirement. Their PEFC certificate has now been terminated.

In June 2016, SFI were told they would be disassociated from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the other major global certification label, if they did not withdraw an appeal to legal proceedings that would otherwise require union recognition.

SFI did not withdraw and were duly disassociated, meaning they could no longer use the FSC label.

The Court of Appeal will hear the appeal on 19 May 2017, which will likely set an important precedent for employers in the Sabah region.