The Australian Dream for Forestry Workers

Written By: - Date published: 4:42 pm, May 12th, 2013 - 10 comments
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There is an award for forestry workers in Australia. It has a whole range of terms and conditions including hours of work and time off, penal rates for overtime including weekend work, travel allowances and training provisions. The accident rate is half the rate of NZ. The economy is also stronger in Australia, unemployment is lower, wages are better and they have a better cricket team. It all seems rather dignified to me.

Getting any sort of rights for Forestry workers in New Zealand using the current industrial relations framework is a huge undertaking. Protected only by statutory minimums that determine minimum wage, holidays etc for all workers in NZ, forestry workers are, in my view, being employed on terms which are leading to the massive toll of death and injuries. The fragmented model of the industry (9 major forest owners and over 300 harvesting contractors who employ crew) means contractors compete over the price of labour, and with margins being squeezed by theforest owners, contractors in turn pressure forestry workers to work in conditions which are a national disgrace.

Following Pike River the Government set up the Health and Safety Taskforce. They appointed Rob Jaeger as chair. Rob is the Chair of the Board of Shell Oil in NZ. Also on the group was Paul McKay from Business NZ and Bill Rosenberg from the CTU and three others. The report is very good and all participants endorsed it. Not only does it make some very strong recommendations for the future which if implemented will improve our appalling health and safety record but it analyses what is going on currently that contributes to our terrible record in a very effective way. The report strongly records that the deregulation of the Labour market in the 1980’s and 1990’s has contributed to the problem, most particularly the absence of worker voice in health and safety in the workplace. Sadly recommendations to reregulate the labour market were probably out of scope!

The Government is deregulating the labour market further. Not only is it attacking current collective bargaining mechanisms but it is even making the right to take a tea break marginal. The changes to the Employment Relations Act were tabled two weeks ago by the Government. If they had been in place last year they would have allowed the Port of Auckland to turn its stevedoring workforce into day labourers hired by external contractors, as it had planned. The proposed changes to the Act are, as a package, the things Business NZ wet dreams are made of, and when you think of their impact on those working people in industries like forestry where workers and families actually need safer terms and conditions, they are a major step backwards.

The CTU is promoting exactly the opposite to these changes. We want law that supports the creation of industry standard documents which would see forestry workers have industry wide minimum terms and conditions, protecting them from death by over work and creating a level playing field that stops forest owners driving conditions down. We are promoting a method of extension of bargaining which the IMF recently recognised as really the only effective system of providing access to real collective bargaining for working people. I will write a more detailed description of the system soon.

It is interesting at the moment that some large NZ employers (all unionised I add), are breaking away from the position advocated by Business NZ – Progressives Supermarkets and Restaurant Brands rejecting youth rates, Warehouse moving towards the Living Wage along with others. We know in the Port dispute there were employers that didn’t support the way the Port was being run and saw what was happening to the workers there as another symptom of that poor management. They spoke up and created quite a stir. I have been arguing for some time that we need a modern voice for business in NZ and maybe we are seeing the beginnings of it. Forest Companies have the chance to break loose from the group and work with us as well to act now to improve the working conditions of these workers and we have certainly put that offer out there. The first to do it will get the benefits of that and the last the rancour. Those that have accidents and deaths in the meantime will be subject to massive scrutiny for doing nothing.

We are building our campaign against these work rights attacks and they are connected to the work we are doing on health and safety and the living wage. New Zealand has slipped back massively in the area of workers rights, leaving thousands of workers outside the framework of collective bargaining current available in the Act and everyone knows the consequences of that are low wages and poor conditions for thousands of those in our communities and families. We have now also been warned that the chances of coming home safety from work is also reduced by this failure.

We are offering the chance to people to directly get the information on events and activities of our campaign by signing up through our website on http://union.org.nz/whycutourpay

10 comments on “The Australian Dream for Forestry Workers”

  1. One Anonymous Knucklehead 1

    Love your work.

  2. john ryall 2

    Good points Helen.

    Just today my niece, who works hard for a small food retail business, said that her employer told her that the Government was doing away with tea breaks. He said that despite this he would still “allow” her to take one 10 minute break in the morning and one in the afternoon but if she was seen to be “slacking off” he would get rid of them as they were “only a privilege”.

    The narrative continues with this Government. You are lucky to have a job and if you have a good employer and work very hard the employer will give you a wage higher than the minimum wage and other benefits (such as tea breaks).

    The idea of inalienable worker rights, the right to have a say over your work and to negotiate your wages and working conditions has all but disappeared and with the latest proposed employment law changes the Government is intent on putting the nail in the coffin.

    • GregJ 2.1

      Aye – while there are many small business owners who work alongside their employees and treat them fairly and as colleagues in a shared enterprise sadly there are just as many who will treat their staff like disposable dinnerware – cheap & replaceable. Often the “big” employer, faced by public censure, will realise the need to treat staff and conditions in a fair and equitable manner while small & medium businesses can slide under the radar. Hard and mean times indeed!

      Good work Helen – this campaign while being absolutely necessary for Forestry employees also highlights the sustained pressure ‘labour” and worker rights is under from this Government and its appalling industrial relations policies.

  3. AsleepWhileWalking 3

    GRRRRR

  4. asd 4

    Another great read Helen. Keep up the good fight!

  5. geoff 5

    Helen, it would be nice to hear from you about award systems in general, how they work, why we need them and how they could be introduced into NZ. You know, just when you’ve a spare moment 😛

  6. Yes 6

    The mining industry in Australia have terrible working hours. 3 weeks on 1 week off. Isolated locations and very unfriendly family conditions.

    • One Anonymous Knucklehead 6.1

      That’s true. The Australian Parliament has been hearing submissions into FIFO work.

      Of course, if it was NZ, the government would pass a law requiring the workers to pay their own air-fares.

  7. Paul 7

    Capitalism does not care about its workers.

  8. Phil Darkins 8

    “Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite (Every country has the government it deserves)” – Joseph de Maistre 1851
    Almost forty years ago, I delivered a speech on behalf of the Wainuiomata College student council; to teachers, pupils and parents. It was entitled ‘Apathy’. It was not well received. The fellow pupils were miffed, teachers insulted, parents ropeable and mother deeply embarrassed: “You’re just like your father!”. Just a few weeks back, all 650+ of my Facebook friends were asked to ‘like’ a shared post on forestry deaths if they cared about New Zealanders dying at work. Three responses appeared. I’m starting to think that the very existence of this government’s policies is perhaps all the fault of my FB friends, teachers, former fellow students and our families. And that confuses me; because my friends are supposedly just like me [whatever that is], high school teachers predominantly ‘trendy lefties’, former fellow students self-annointed Wainui roughneck anarchists, and their families, your ‘average blue-collar Kiwi battler’. How does that work? Methinks time to redeliver that speech of 1976. Moral for the nation? It is indeed possible to dig yourself a very deep hole without lifting a finger. Irony? I’ll be their common enemy.

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