Striving for decent work in the forestry sector

February 27, 2012

Stripping bark in a South African plantation

The previous column on forest labour highlighted the impact that labour outsourcing had on wages and working conditions in the forestry industry in South Africa. It was noted that these negative effects have been mitigated to some extent through the introduction of a minimum wage for the sector, and labour reforms introduced by forest owners. The question that remains, is have they gone far enough?

Decent work
The concept of 'decent work' was developed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to address the challenges of work in the 21st century, in particular job insecurity and casualisation. The ILO developed a framework for decent work around four pillars: human rights and work; employment and incomes; strengthening social protection and social security; and lastly, strengthening social dialogue.

Pillar 1: Human rights and work
This pillar encompasses workers' rights and includes: freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour; the effective abolition of child labour; the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation, and the enforcement of basic labour standards.

Sectoral Determination, which establishes conditions of employment and wages for the Forestry Sector in South Africa, covers most of the elements of this pillar. There are two concerns here: non-compliance with the law; and the low level of the minimum wage. As discussed in the previous column, although internal contractor compliance auditing within companies has been steadily improving, partly as a result of FSC audits, this has by no means ensured universal compliance. In two recent FSC audits, for example, it was discovered that some contractors were not paying their workers on public holidays, revealing not only the non-compliance itself, but the inadequacy of internal compliance auditing.

The low level of the minimum wage was also touched on in the previous column. The statutory minimum wage for forestry workers in 2010 was
R1 221.83 – about half the entry level minimum wage secured though collective bargaining among unionised labour in the sector. Compared to other sectors, it is even lower. According to the Actual Wage Rates Database compiled by the Labour Research Service, the average minimum wage in 2009 across all sectors in South Africa was R2 883.

Low wages are linked inextricably to lack of organising. The weakest aspect of this pillar remains giving effect to workers' rights to organise and to collective bargaining. Strategies for organising and mobilising contract and informal workers remain a key challenge facing labour unions and other civil society groupings. In South Africa, as in many parts of the world, forestry unions were dealt a major blow as a result of labour outsourcing. Efforts to organise informal workers is the subject for a future column. It is interesting to note, as I did on a recent audit, that some contractors have a unionised workforce, so it is by no means a given that contractorisation means an absence of union membership.

When it comes to labour law compliance, it is my impression that there are broadly speaking two types of employers, be they contractors or forest owners: those that try to get away with paying their labour as little as possible and comply with legislation only if forced to do so, and those who treat their labour as an essential and valued part of their business and generally pay wages and benefits in excess of the legal minimum.

Pillar 2. Protecting employment and incomes
This aspect relates to employment creation and prevention and mitigation of job losses. There have been two phases of job losses in South Africa, the first as a result of outsourcing labour in the period 1997-2002, and the second, taking place now, as a result of mechanisation. There is scope and need to clarify basic procedures and improve practices relating to job-loss mitigation measures. Further, the way in which companies manage contractors has a major impact on their viability and the sustainability of the jobs they provide. In recent years, some of the big companies have moved away from the old 'take it or leave it' style of setting rates, and have adopted open-book costing methods as a way of setting fair rates that take into account the real cost of doing business. There is a discernable shift that has taken place in the industry towards stabilising the contracting environment, enabling contractors in turn to provide more secure employment. This also opens the way for unionisation.

Pillar 3. Strengthening social protection and social security
Social protection is of crucial importance in the face of rising unemployment, the shift from full-time employment to part-time and freelance work, and low wages and loss of employment benefits, including membership of pension schemes. The ILO has coined a term 'flexicurity', recognising that the nature of work today is flexible, and that this brings with it risks and vulnerabilities that society needs to address. In South Africa, there is a universal unemployment insurance fund, as well as a range of social grants and old age pensions, which provide some measure of social protection to the poor. Levels of vulnerability and insecurity among forest workers remain high, however, as a result of low wages and job insecurity associated with contractorisation. As the contracting sector stabilises, so job security improves, and some contractors have gone further than required by law to introduce pension schemes for their workers.

Pillar 4. Strengthening social dialogue

Of all the pillars of decent work, this is the one that has been most impacted upon by labour casualisation, and has received the least attention in terms of labour reforms. The ILO places social dialogue at the very centre of decent work:

"The ILO is a forum for building consensus. Its tripartite structure reflects a conviction that the best solutions arise through social dialogue in its many forms and levels, from national tripartite consultations and cooperation, to plant-level collective bargaining. By engaging in dialogue, the social partners also fortify democratic governance, building vigorous and resilient labour market institutions that contribute to long-term social and economic stability and peace."

The box below provides an overview of several initiatives aimed at fostering dialogue, consultations and cooperation in order to address the problems of the forestry contracting sector in South Africa. Unfortunately, none of these were successful in bringing the forestry companies to the negotiating table. Repeated calls by government and labour for a compact on minimum conditions for forest labour failed to yield results and ultimately it was left to government to legislate minimum wages and working conditions.

There was a similar lack of response to repeated attempts by the SA Forestry Contractors Association and other groups to address problems relating to the terms and conditions of forestry contracting. More recently, industry players have undertaken to develop codes of conduct for forestry contracting employment practices, an initiative under the Forest Sector Charter. As yet, these voluntary codes have not been finalised or adopted, and the industry has recently questioned the usefulness of making good on these undertakings.

Initiatives aimed at addressing key problems associated with the contracting environment in South Africa

1989: Formation of the South African contractors Association (SAFCA)  to: 

  • serve and promote the contracting business
  • protect its members and liaise with forestry clients to mutual benefit
  • bargain collectively on matters such as tariffs, prices, unions and insurance.

1993: First industry-wide workshop to address the ‘contractor problem’ held in Sappi’s Ngodwana mill in Mpumalanga. 

1996: SAFCA makes a strongly worded appeal to the large timber growers to enter into a compact with contractors to address key problems that are crippling their financial viability and threatening the sustainability of the industry.  

1997: Government and unions call for contractors, companies and labour to agree to a voluntary, self-regulatory agreement on minimum labour standards for forest workers. 

1998-1999: Contractor Upliftment Programme (CUP) workshops to analyse the root causes of problems facing contractors and secure commitments to address these. 

2006: Sectoral Determination setting out legally prescribed minimum wages and working conditions for forest labour comes into effect. Sectoral Determination provides a ‘floor or rights’ for workers in sectors without union protection or collective bargaining.

2005-2009: The development of the Forest Sector Charter to set out a vision and plan of action for transformation of the forest sector, and build sector-wide commitment to achieve the goals. The Charter included undertakings by industry, labour and government to develop Codes of Conduct for forestry contracting and employment.

Published in December 2011

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