Audrey Young

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Forestry deaths inspire Helen Kelly's conference speech

Helen Kelly, President of the NZ Council of Trade Unions. Photo / Michael Craig
Helen Kelly, President of the NZ Council of Trade Unions. Photo / Michael Craig

The latest death of a forestry worker in New Zealand, Charles Finlay, featured large in a speech by Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly to the Labour conference in Christchurch today.

She said he was the victim of poor health and safety in an industry that was dangerous by design and which was designed in a manner that left its workforce scared of raising concerns.

"Workers like Charles are exhausted," she said. "Their families talk of them coming home at night and falling into bed without dinner, of constant conversations of corner cutting and productivity pressure and of numerous near misses where tired workers make mistakes that are the difference between coming home or not."

She talked about the CTU's campaign for greater safety in the forestry industry, which has had eight deaths this year, the CTU's living wage campaign, the fairness at work campaign and the campaign on insecure work.

She described in detail Mr Finlay's work pattern.

"Charles Finlay got home at 6pm the night before he was killed, and was up again the next morning at 3am to meet his normal start time of 4 am. Charles was dead by 5.30am in the middle of the winter, in the middle of the country, in the middle of the night and on a dark unlit site. He regularly worked between 55 and 60 hours in a 5 day week and up to 64 hours when he worked a Saturday. Some days he also drove more than an hour each way."

Mr Finlay was on $16 an hour after 27 years in the bush. His employer was a contractor to Hancocks Forests - the biggest forest owner in New Zealand.

She said the 300 contractors in the industry were being squeezed by the nine big forest owners including being allocated work too late to make a safety plan and facing increasing productivity pressures requirements.

"Charles and his family are the victims of a deregulated labour market. Charles' employment was insecure - he was not paid in bad weather, he was employed in an insecure supply chain arrangement.

"He did not earn a living wage, forcing him to work unacceptably long hours in a country with no maximum hours of work, and now this all means he leaves behind 7 year old beautiful twin girls and a lovely 21 year old son and a widow now receiving ACC of 80 per cent of $16 for the years to come to support them all."

"What happened to Charles is a problem the whole country has to think about. He had 1400 mourners at his tangi. You can feel the aching in a community like Tokoroa - Charles is the second Tokoroa man killed in the last two years in Forestry and 1 of 5 Forestry deaths in the Bay of Plenty in the last two years.

"These families - when you first meet them show you photos of their men and sons, they need you to understand that they were loved and good people, working hard, skilled, dedicated - they do this in the context of the forestry sector where the men are not respected; where their contribution to this huge industry is exploited. Our campaign for forestry safety is making big inroads."

Forestry owners were now saying they would hold an inquiry and the CTU had been consulted on the terms of reference.

Workers were joining the union and many families were getting involved with the campaign.

But no matter how organised they got, the current law would not resolve the employment issues for forestry workers who had not had a collective agreement since they had an award.

They had not had a functioning structure for union membership since the New Zealand Forest Service was corporatised in 1987.

Helen Kelly said that the CTU worker rights campaign would be run into election year and part of it was to propose a new industrial law that would mean that standards negotiated within an industry through enterprise collective bargaining would be extended to industrial level agreements to cover all workers in that industry, when a threshold was crossed.

"For example, in aged care, where through collective bargaining, a certain percentage of aged care workers are covered by collective agreements, the standards from those agreements would be extended to all workers in the aged care sector.

"Access to collective negotiations cant be determined by the fate of where you get a job and whether or not the job has sufficient strength to negotiate a collective agreement."

Talking about the CTU's insecure work campaign launched last month, Helen Kelly said at least 30 per cent of New Zealand workers, over 635,000, and perhaps as much as 50 percent were in insecure work.

"We know that 95,000 workers have no usual work time, 192,000 are temporary, 61,000 have no written employment agreement, 573,000 workers earned less than the living wage, and 570,000 workers were in one of five industries with the worst workplace health and safety records.

- NZ Herald

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