The horror story in forestry rolls on and on. Numerous, repeated appeals for change in this deadly industry have come from workers and unions for a long time now but to little avail.
The Council of Trade Unions has called for an independent inquiry into the industry practices which led to this grisly death toll but the government has brushed it off. However it’s no longer possible to ignore it and as the death toll mounts the finger pointing between the guilty parties has begun.
Ministerial prat Simon Bridges (Minister of Labour) denies it’s a government issue and blames what he calls “a strong level of non-compliance” in the industry. He says the solutions are already known and the industry needs to get on with implementing them.
Forest Owners Association president Paul Nicholls however says the industry doesn’t have the answers and needs help. It will launch its own inquiry next year into hours of work and introducing safer technologies but it’s clear this employer group is out of its depth in an industry which is both dangerous and ethically derelict.
Health and safety in the workplace has been a low priority for governments here for a long time as neo-liberal policies have left the responsibility and most of the monitoring to businesses themselves. Weak regulations and lack of resources to monitor and enforce them was a key factor leading to the Pike River disaster and the same situation now applies in forestry – albeit one death at a time.
There are at least two systemic causes for the failure of many corporates to make health and safety a priority.
Firstly the relentless drive for profit puts everything second to the greed of their shareholders. The privatised New Zealand Railways previously held the record for workers killed on the job. Year after year they gave barely a sideways glance as the grim toll of workers killed in shunting accidents rose. All they wanted was a profitable business and if this was to be built on the skeletons of dead workers then why not?
Secondly the “contracting out” of work adds to the problem for workers. Forestry contractors harvesting wood are under pressure from the forest owners who have all the power to award or deny contracts and bid contractors down. These contractors then push the problem onto individual workers with low pay rates meaning they must work long hours and cut corners to get a decent pay packet. Health and safety takes a back seat and the workers are systematically blamed when serious accidents occur.
Contracting absolves the corporate owner from any responsibilities under the Employment Relations Act – all the risks and responsibilities are shoved onto contractors and through them onto individual workers.
Health and safety inspectors are doing their best. On Friday the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment said it had shut down 14 forestry operations this year because they were dangerous, though no prosecutions were taken, and issued 182 enforcement notices.
Despite this the death toll rises inexorably as a reluctant government and an unaccountable industry blunder on over the bodies of workers.
Capitalism has always paid scant regard to the safety of workers. The history of workplace disasters is the history of corporate greed.
Forestry needs strict regulations with rigorous enforcement and tough financial penalties for breaches. It would also make a huge difference if companies were required to employ workers directly rather than through contractors.
But most important of all it needs the monitoring of health and safety to be taken from corporate or contractor hands and put in the hands of the workers themselves with the responsibility for their own safety and the automatic right to stop work when their health or safety are compromised.