BWI stands united for decent work and health and safety in forest-based industries

BWI stands united for decent work and health and safety in forest-based industries

By Ambet Yuson

06 May 2019 14:00


The ILO is holding a sectorial meeting focused on forestry 6-10 May 2019. It has released a discussion paper to guide the debate titled: “Promoting decent work and safety and health in forestry”.

The discussion paper notes:

· Forestry is the most dangerous industry in the world

· The majority of forestry workers lack decent work conditions

· Wages are declining while productivity is rising

· More workers are in informal work situations then covered by formal employment contracts

· Deforestation continues

· Automation reduces employment in the sector

The problem with this paper is these things were also documented in a July 2000 Working Paper, a 2005 Guideline document, and most likely every ILO forestry sectorial meeting ever held.

Governments and employers still find business as usual to create dangerous work conditions for our workers in the wood and forestry sectors. They find it acceptable, and, are frequently a direct cause of gender and migrant discrimination. We continue to work harder, be more productive and are still paid less. Governments look the other way as employers re-invent methods to create jobs outside of the normal legal protections. The ILO report documents that vast numbers of forestry workers are in the informal sector, which is most frequently code for illegal work. If governments would invest the time and energy, they have into ending illegal logging and put that money into ending informal and illegal work conditions we would be well on our way to safe and decent work and legal logging.

Given the lack of change with a few notable exceptions, it seems as if the time has come for a paradigm change.

There is an opportunity for such a change resulting from the only new aspect included in the ILO forestry paper, which is the recognition of the existential threat posed by climate change.

Climate change is altering the global debate. Since even neo-liberal economists acknowledge that climate change is the greatest market failure the world has ever seen, it is increasingly acceptable to recognize that not only do markets fail, (not that any of us forgot the 2008 global market failure) but that markets fail even or especially when they succeed. Rising global poverty and massive inequity is the result of market successes. Deforestation is the result of market success. Unregulated markets cannot price natural resources in a way that will avoid the worst predictions of higher concentrations of green-house gases in our environment; and market successes result from dangerous work.

Corporate executives and stockholders reap the rewards of dangerous work even though study after study demonstrates that safety pays. Just as employers can avoid the largest costs of carbon pollution, so employers avoid the largest costs of workplace fatalities. In both cases, the market shifts significant portions of the costs to others, most often to us.

Approximately 13,7 million people work in the forestry sector worldwide. Estimates of on the job injuries routinely exceed 170.000 per year. That seems rather a lot for the about 3.8 million m3. of round wood that is harvested each year in the formal employment sector. The global north has the safest work places and the best data collection yet even here we learn that In the United States (U.S.) alone between the 80 and 100 people die each year as a result of work in the forest. By way of comparison truck drivers which is one of the most-deadly occupations in the U.S. has an injury rate 5.5 times lower than ours.

In the European Union, the average number of fatal accidents per 100,000 workers is more than double the rate in the construction sector. Yet, we know places where forestry work is safer. Where workers have decent work. Those places share some common characteristics. They have robust national labour laws. They have legislation requiring workers to be co-equal partners in safety decisions. They have robust enforcement of Occupational Safety and Health (OSH). In Sweden for example, labour unions administer many aspects of OSH enforcement.

This raises a critical question: if we know how to create safe work, why are high injury rates acceptable? Given that they are much higher in the global South the situation is even worse.

Why do governments allow these unsafe work practices to be created and maintained by employers? Why have governments and employers not invested in creating safer tools and technology? Technology exists for saws to stop upon contact with human skin; yet, these have not been introduced into commercial forest harvest equipment. Why is profitability and not OSH considered when investing in and designing the next generation of forestry technology?

Why do employers who claim to promote and demand safe work, hire independent contractors who have accidents rates above normal? Why do governments allow dangerous work to be hidden by allowing employers to create informal work relationships which are nothing more than disguised informal work?

All too often Occupational Safety and Health discussions focus on blaming the victims. The concept that a worker would knowingly take the risks required by employers if they had an alternative is absurd. Blaming the victim is done to avoid finding the root causes of unsafe work. This is especially important for our delegates to the upcoming meeting. Employers will always blame us for getting injured in the dangerous work they create to make their profits. Governments will frequently take the easy way out of most conflicts. By siding with the employers the discussion is moved from why do governments allow dangerous work to exist, and why do employers create unsafe work conditions, procedures, pay systems and policies, to why are workers unsafe. Once the focus shifts to unsafe workers instead of unsafe work then the solutions are shift. Instead of developing language that holds employers accountable for profiting from unsafe work and the use of unsafe equipment, pay systems, production quotas the solutions become training workers to be safe in an unsafe environment.

We must use this opportunity to reframe the debate about health and safety. The climate change debate is gaining ground. We now know that it costs more to ignore climate change then to mitigate it. Likewise, it costs more to allow unsafe work then it costs society to allow it. In both cases the problem is that there are those who gain from carbon pollution and from unsafe work.

Step1: Do not allow governments or employers efforts to blame injured workers go unchallenged. We do not pick the tools. We do not create the pay systems. We do not set the production quotas. We do not, except in rare cases, administer the safety program. We must fight to gain control and each of these. Union work sites are safer because we have a voice. We must advocate that employers and governments that seek to put up barriers to our right to organize and bargain collectively are ignoring key workplace safety approaches.

Step 2: Withdraw rewards for creating dangerous work. The World Trade Organization recognizes that a government’s role as a consumer is distinct from its role as policy maker and enforcement. This means that governments can determine who they buy goods and services from. We must identify the employers, investors, and government officials who gain from allowing public policy to create private profits through unsafe work. We must create policies that bar unsafe employers from selling either their products or their services to the public sector at all levels, from the village to the national government. We must vote out elected officials who permit governments to purchase forest products sourced from employers who fail to provide decent work and sustainable forestry. Public Officials must be educated that the lowest priced forest product is rarely the cheapest. Embedded in too many of these “bargains” are our body parts and our blood.

Every country offers employers protection from legal penalties in the corporate charter in return for social gain. If employers routinely continue to injure workers and their employees, then they have abrogated their right to exist. Employers at the ILO must be asked why they defend companies that consistently violate national OSH regulations.

Forest certification provides a tool to track the entire chain of custody from the forest to the consumer. It is possible to identify in this process those employers who flaunt OSH and fail to provide decent work. The ILO has a role to play in helping to educate forest certification auditors of both international forest certification systems so that these systems can enforce their own standards. Likewise, our delegates and our members must take strong positions on training not only certification auditors but also all labour inspectors and provide decent work for the inspectors, so they are less vulnerable to corruption.

Step 3: If there are two types of technology and one is less safe then we must organize to have the power to stop the unsafe one. The ILO and all national governments must be pressured to give workers a seat at the table in the administration and design of safety programs. We must fight at all levels from the shop floor to the ILO for the empowerment of workers. We must not just have a voice but have co-equal decisions on how OSH is administered on the job. This also happens most effectively in a union work place.

Step 4: An injury to one is an injury to all. In this case this is true both figuratively and actually. We cannot allow our migrant co-workers, and women to be given the most dangerous work. No one should do a job where death is a probable outcome. We must develop partnerships with them. We must educate them to know their rights and stand up for them.

When the employers or government claim that they cannot afford safe work, we must remind them that is exactly what they said about climate change. The only difference here is scale. Their low-cost arguments created the market failure that is endangering our planet. These same arguments are also endangering our lives.

At the international level we need to help the public and private sectors understand that creating unsafe and low wage work is not sustainable. This ultimately means stopping the technology that is unsafe or carbon emitting. It means understanding that great concentrations of wealth resulting from either carbon pollution or unsafe work is not socially acceptable. We must reach out and find new allies so that we can magnify our voices in order to be heard in the halls of government at all levels and in the financial centres of the world.

If we unite and work together, we can make sure that the next ILO forestry report, whenever that will be, will not report that forestry is still the most dangerous work in the world. It will not report that workers are to blame for the governments allowing employers to create unsafe jobs.

What it will show is that through the empowerment of workers at all levels, we have created and enforced industrial plans that puts workers’ safety first, along with the safety of the planet, be it on the job or in our communities.