SFI Union Pickets; Workers Baffled Over Silence By State Government

SFI workers picket outside the gates of their office in Sipitang. – Photo credit Facebook Engrit Liaw

SIPITANG: Hundreds of workers at the beleaguered Sabah Forest Industries held a peaceful picket Wednesday morning to demand for unpaid wages, as well as recognition for their union.

Members of the Sabah Timber Industry Employees Union will picket again Thursday to drive home the point that thousands of people are affected by the SFI management’s inability to pay their staff since the beginning of the year.

BorneoToday has reliably learnt that a bigger crowd is expected Thursday as the spouses and families of workers, join in the peaceful picket.

It is understood that the SFI management has also not paid up contributions to the Employees Provident Fund since November last year, though deductions were made from the workers’ salaries.

Female employees at SFI show what they want, and on International Women’s Day at that.

But the sorest point of the STIEU members is the continued silence of the Sabah State government which is said to be a minority shareholder in the once government-linked company.

“Why the state government has so far kept mum on this issue and not come to our assistance or even come to find out what is happening, is something we (in STIEU) would like to know,” said a worker who asked for anonymity.

He said Union members had briefed State Secretary Tan Sri Sukarti Wakiman on the workers’ plight and yet nothing materialised.

Prime Minister Dato Seri Najib Tun Razak who was on a visit to Sipitang last Saturday to launch the The 28.4-kilometre long upgrading project of Jalan Sindumin-Kampung Melalia, deftly avoided the controversy despite an impassioned plea by a young unionist.

Dayang Rosmawatye

Dayang Rosmawatye Salleh had written an open letter to Najib, urging the Prime Minister to champion a change of laws so that employers like SFI could not overturn decisions made by the government concerning labour, through judicial review proceedings.

“Today (Saturday), as you visit Sipitang, please take a moment to think about our struggle, to have our union recognised as well as the plight of hundreds of local Malaysian workers who have yet to get their salaries,” Rosmawatye wrote.

As SFI Indian management approached the gates to the offices Wednesday, workers chanted ‘gaji, gaji, gaji’ (wages) while surrounding a Mercedes Benz.

STIEU secretary-general Engrit Liaw when contacted said: “We will continue (to picket) again today (Thursday) as management didn’t give any decision and management representatives refused to face the workers.

“They ran out of the office and left workers standing outside the gate. The peaceful picket ended at 11am.”

Union leaders also addressed the workers while a letter was handed over to the senior management by STIEU.

Ballarpur Industries Ltd (Bilt), India’s largest paper company, acquired SFI, the largest Malaysian paper firm, in 2007 for US$261 million, from the Lion Group.

Last year, BILT had proposed deal to sell the company to Pandawa Sakti (Sabah) Sdn Bhd, Malaysia, for an enterprise value of RM2.2 billion but the deal eventually came unstuck.

The firm had signed an agreement to sell its entire stake in SFI last September. The deal, which was subject to necessary approvals, was originally expected to close within three months.

SFI, was incorporated in 1982 during the Harris Salleh-led Berjaya government but the wood- based pulp mill started only in 1986 when Parti Bersatu Sabah was in power.

At one stage it managed a forest estate of 288,138ha, pulp and paper manufacturing facilities, along with an integrated timber complex consisting of a saw mill and a veneer and plywood factory.

SFI workers hold up banners demanding for their wages which has not been paid since January.

The mill is able to produce 240,000 tonnes of pulp a year, half of which is manufactured into writing and printing paper for domestic and international markets, while the other half is exported as market pulp.

For years SFI operated at a loss and in 1993 mill management was terminated. SFI was sold by the government to Lion Group in 1994.

BILT in turned purchased SFI in 2007 for RM945 million cash from the debt-laden Lion Group.

In earlier reports in BorneoToday, it was reported that hundreds of daily-rated workers have not got their salaries since January this year, while the executives and management have so far got half their pay packets.

In a statement issued by STIEU president Martin Andong in mid February, he 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.

“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.”

Union officials also said that for almost three decades the workers had pursued the simple right to bargain collectively, however SFI have consistently used legal loopholes to avoid recognition.