Poor working conditions in forestry come under the spotlight

Poor working conditions of forestry workers, who were mostly contracted on a minimum wage for physically demanding work, increased the possibility of strikes similar to those on mines and Western Cape farms from spreading to the forestry industry.

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“The forestry industry is exposed to a high level of risk due to unsustainable labour practices that have become the norm since the late 1990s, when large forestry companies decided to out-source labour,” said Jeanette Clarke, independent researcher and writer for the trade magazine, SA Forestry. “The Marikana strikes will haunt the industry until working conditions for all forestry workers are improved.”

Clarke recently completed a study into working conditions in the forestry industry, commissioned by the department of agriculture. She found that 83% of labour was out-sourced, working under fixed, short-term contracts, and undertaking identical work to unionised employees at a lower wage. “Forestry workers employed by contractors are kept on the lowest possible wage without benefits and without job security,” said Clarke.

“Exploitation, however, is not uniform throughout the sector and five companies do still employ a significant proportion of their own workers in full-time employment with benefits such as provident funds and pensions.” Out-sourcing has bypassed unions in the industry, although they were still active in paper mills and in companies that were linked to the state in some way. But even these companies were increasingly bringing in contractors and workers on the minimum fixed-term wage, and there was a big gap between old workers with higher salaries and new employees, said Clarke.

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Social responsibility
In addition to the wage discrepancy, jobs such as carrying logs, operating chainsaws and stripping bark were physically demanding. While the forestry plantation sector has addressed environmental issues with the Forestry Stewardship Council guidelines, Clarke said no equivalent had been produced for social responsibility and employment practices. Strikes at Marikana succeeded in elevating the wages of the lowest paid rock drillers to R11 078/month. In the Western Cape, farm workers demanded a daily rate of R150.

The current sectoral determination for agriculture, which was amended on 24 February 2012, prescribed the minimum wage as R7,71/h, R347,10/week and R1 503,90/month. Forestry has its own wage determination, presently set at R1 429/month, to rise at inflation plus 1% per year. The aim is to reach parity with minimum agricultural wages by 2015.

Following the Western Cape strikes, the Department of Labour (DoL) was presenting a series of provincial public hearings as part of a process to review the agricultural determination. Forestry SA assistant director Roger Godsmark said foresters should attend the hearings in their provinces.

“Although the forestry industry has its own sectoral determination, given DoL’s intention to achieve parity between the two determinations, any changes to the agricultural determination will directly affect us,” he said. Forestry SA executive director Michael Peter said the industry’s charter council, which was appointed by the department of agriculture, was addressing issues affecting contract workers and independent company-supported timber growers.

He said massive transformation had already taken place in the industry. Community plantations were increasingly being supported by the state, and companies like Sappi and Mondi were market leaders when it came to settling land claims and transferring land to community trusts. Clarke’s study, which covers January to June 2012, was awaiting the department of agriculture’s approval for release.