Forestry Safety Inquiry Needs to Be Priority

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It has been encouraging to see such strident reaction to the forestry safety meeting. Obviously the union campaign has hit a raw nerve with some of those responsible for the working conditions of employees and contractors. Of course some other industry leaders are quite supportive of the calls for: (a) an independent inquiry into the issues; (b) unionising the workforce; and (c) agreeing on some basic working conditions for forestry workers.

Suggestions that the meeting was politicised are quite accurate – it is a highly politicised issue while Minister Simon Bridges refuses to support an independent inquiry. The two Members of Parliament who spoke at the meeting sit on the Transport and Industrial Relations Select Committee and have supported the Council of Trade Union’s call for an inquiry. Industry representatives were given the opportunity to speak at the meeting and some chose to, others did not.

The Approved Code of Practice for Safety and Health in Forest Operations launched at the end of last year had little input from the workers it is supposed to protect. Those running the business and responsible for the poor safety record are writing the rules. And given the Minister has a goal of reducing deaths and accidents in our forests by only a quarter of current rates over the next seven years, it should be obvious the National Party just don’t care enough.

Blaming the victims of workplace accidents is a common strategy to deflect responsibility from those who control the conditions under which workers have to operate. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise to see such tactics still being used here today. Yes, workers have some responsibility for their decisions in the workplace, but the conditions under which they work are clearly the most influential factors given the trends and individual stories emerging.

There were forestry workers at the public meeting who told us afterwards they had been told not to say anything. The initial meeting was not the Inquiry, it was simply an opportunity to present the need and plans for an inquiry, to provide an opportunity to hear briefly from interested stakeholders and to start building support for the initiative. Workers, contractors, forest managers, owners and regulators will all be essential contributors to the inquiry and we need a process that allows everyone to participate safely, which, like the Pike River Royal Commission of Inquiry, is why the Government needs to support it.

Claims that the ‘90 plus hours per week’ contract presented at the public meeting was not available to be viewed by the media are quite inaccurate. The Gisborne Herald was told the document could be viewed but a copy would not be provided for risk of identifying the company if it was reproduced. The contract was seen by a TV3 News journalist who asked to see it, something The Gisborne Herald did not do.

Suggesting the unions are only in this for self-gain is shameful and I’d suggest the Forest Industry Contractors Association look long and hard at their Chief Executive if they are really are serious about making forests safer for workers. It’s just a little ironic that the forestry contractors and owners have collective organisations to represent their interests but seem so opposed to workers enjoying the same.

The Inquiry will need to provide an assessment of the current performance of the industry in regards to health and safety – including all key areas known to impact on safe practices including: training and work readiness standards; the structure of the industry; use of contracting; conditions of employment; the role of the regulator; and employee participation.

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