Capitalism is killing workers so let’s put health and safety in workers’ hands


“Michael Steven Langford was killed in a logging accident near Nelson on Friday, the second forestry worker to die in the last week and the ninth to be killed on the job this year” (RNZ 30/11/13)

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?

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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.


  1. As a temp worker, I thought this sort of thing was all fantasy until my own summary dismissal by a large corporate last week. My physical assault at work by a full time staff member just got me sacked. However bad employers, backed by bad government policies, can have far worse consequences than just losing your job… It’s hard to believe our society and employee rights has fallen this far in just a generation.

  2. We just come to work here. We don’t come to die.

    The invisible primary production sectors, eh, John. Farming. Forestry. Fisheries. Horticulture. Port services. Construction and maintenance.

    Slave labour and below award pay. Crazy working hours. Uncertain employment conditions in a depressed economy. Pitiful training on the job and unaffordable off the job training. A fake culture of ‘man enough! tough enough! we don’t need no union wimps!’

    We just come to work here. We don’t come to die.

  3. “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.”

    When the forest owners cry out for help, what is the government bloody waiting for?

    It is the result of cut throat business. Also of “stupid economics”, where the exporting of logs has become the earner of livelihoods, rather than having value added production here, that may lead to more productive use of timber, e.g. a national state housing program.

    New Zealand forestry contractors are competing with each other, many pay their workers just over the minimum wage to keep going, and they all also compete with exporters producing logs in other countries.

    Nothing much good can come out of such a situation as New Zealand has got itself in.

    First of all hold an enquiry, then ensure that certain “cowboy” enterprises and contractors are not allowed to get away with enslaving their workers under risky and poorly paid conditions that expose them to accidents.

    Also then start an economic reorientation, where jobs are created in other areas, so that people in those rural regions have alternatives to working under such conditions as they seem to exist.

    I may even suggest a “bloody chainsaw campaign”, where unions hand out leaflets with “bloody chainsaw” graphics out in urban centres, send out emails to members, and present information via other channels, to raise more public awareness in especially the urban centres, so the office people get confronted with how our export earnings are “earned” at such a high price.

    Enough is enough, every worker deserves a fair pay and decent, safe working conditions.

  4. No amount of regulation or ‘owner inquiries’ or unions pleading are gunna do shit. The only group that can improve safety are workers themselves by demanding the changes needed be implemented. They are at the point of production and are the only ones with any leverage. Expecting industry to be kinder and more gentle is like asking a tape worm to please not suck the life out of me, its just not gunna happen.
    Everyone whos ever had a job outside of an office knows that h&s law is weapon to use against workers not protect them. When did we get safety glasses? When they became super cheap is when. And then lo and behold if you dont use them you’re in trouble with the bosses (parasites).
    But any safety equipment that is expensive either to buy or in terms of productivity is pushed aside, half assed, ignored until workers stop trying to get it – who can afford black marks against their name these days?

    • How about organized labour protecting themselves.

      How about employers supplying safety equipment,or paying a safety equipment increment onto the the hourly pay rate of their employees.

      How about employers paying heed to safety requirements for their industry.

      How about employers not victimizing workers for their right to organize to protect against unsafe working conditions.

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