Jobs vs Starvation

January 11, 2013

Rory Mack offers some insight into the controversial topic of decent work vs wage rates...

The current back and forth arguments and justifications around decent jobs as well as wage rates etc tend mostly to be from the side of job providers, companies outsourcing forestry work and speculators in the realm of idealism dependent on the side of the fence they are sitting on.

In the course of my work I meet up with and interact with a cross section of contractors, small scale timber growers, workers, farmers and company employees. Every one tends to have their own spin on this matter based on their experience, background and paradigms. I have yet to meet a worker who is grateful that they have been retrenched because the work they are doing has been classified by others as not being "decent". The implications are that a worker is assumed to be of a lower status in society and not contributing anything of substance, the job is considered inhumane and therefore not worthy of employing a poverty stricken or ambitious person that has limited options in finding work in the rural context. In a discussion with a chainsaw operator of long service he remarked on the fact that because of his employment he had managed to educate three of his children and was in the process of paying off a house he had bought – he was one of a number of operators retrenched and replaced with a mechanical harvesting machine. There are many such instances of forestry work providing for families and there are those workers that have risen through the ranks to achieve successful careers in the industry. Why deny them this opportunity or condemn them to poverty at worst starvation?

In rural areas "off the radar" I encounter many people earning money from manual forestry related activities alleviating poverty at household level and allowing businesses to survive under harsh conditions. These people rarely receive any sort of protective equipment, any benefits and inconsistent levels of employment at just below or in some instances minimum wage levels. Based on the recent rhetoric and ideals expressed they shouldn't be working at all at these jobs or under those conditions. This would be a foolish and unrealistic proposition given the lack of other opportunities, a national outcry for jobs and the fragile nature of forestry businesses operating under those conditions. In fact all the small scale timber producers would find themselves without the means to realise income opportunities that are vital to their existence and to sustain the timber plantation investment of R200+ million made over the 29 years of outgrower programmes.

Clearly we can't take the approach of "throw the baby out with the bath water" in dealing with such an important matter relating to peoples livelihoods. Certainly within the so called emergent sector it is not an option, what would be constructive is providing support to up their game. This has been on the table for a number of years yet fails to find the necessary takers. Surprising as small scale forestry producers are some of the most resilient commodity producers and the most successful land based production systems for rural areas.

By Rory Mack, Forestry Development Consultant

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