Seventy percent of New Zealand’s plantation forests receive a green tick from the leading international forestry standard despite high industry fatalities and 90 percent of forestry contractors breaching employee rights.

Not-for-profit organisation the Forestry Stewardship Council was set up in 1994 with a mission to stop deforestation. To earn the FSC tick, wood must come from a responsibly-managed forest which is audited annually and passes the Council’s social, ecological and economic standards.

In a crowded eco-labelling marketplace rife with accusations of green-washing, FSC certification is considered to be the leading international forestry standard. Approved wood can earn forestry companies an extra $2.50 per cubic metre.

When certified wood is used in production of goods, a chain of custody certification can be attained. This means the FSC tick can be displayed on consumer goods. Goods currently carrying one range from Purex toilet paper and Kirin beer packaging, to New Zealand’s Allbirds shoes.

The Council’s social standards include ensuring workers are kept safe and well and their rights are protected.

A December 2017 forestry industry audit conducted by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment found widespread breaches of employment standards. These included staff being paid below minimum wage.

The FSC’s director general, Kim Carstensen, is currently visiting New Zealand. He said in order to achieve FSC certification, workers’ rights to health and safety and remuneration need to be met.

“I don’t know whether New Zealand as a country is meeting those requirements, but I am certainly expecting that the certified operations in New Zealand would be meeting those requirements.

“Those forests that are certified will have to meet requirements that come from the global principles – also in terms of workers’ rights. Workers’ rights in terms of health and safety, workers’ rights in terms of the remuneration. There are requirements that have to be met in a certified forest.”

“It gets to the point where the lowest common denominator wins. What we need to do is get forestry to really act right.

Forest visits form part of the auditing process.

“They [auditors] physically go to see the forest. There are possibilities for stakeholders to engage in those conversations so that the workers and trade unions can raise an issue and say ‘Look, here something is wrong because we’ve had many injuries, or we’ve had whatever, the case may be’.”

Audits are carried out by auditors independent to the FSC, and are paid by the companies directly. To date, no New Zealand forestry company has failed a FSC forest management audit.

First Union represents 27,000 workers across different industries, including wood. Assistant general secretary Louisa Jones said First Union is part of the social chamber of FSC and has been part of a committee working in developing updated social standards for New Zealand FSC certification.

“Workers anecdotally have told me they don’t take FSC certification very seriously because they think that the auditing process is flawed. In particular they don’t talk to workers, or if they do talk to workers, they talk to workers in situations where the workers have been told what to say.”

Carstensen said auditors randomly select workers to talk with as part of the FSC certification audit.

“The forest management company audit process includes employee interviews, and that these are randomly selected to ensure responses are an accurate representation of the situation. Any external stakeholders, including trade unions, are able to participate in audits and provide feedback regarding workers or anything else related to the FSC principles and criteria. Audits in New Zealand are also published allowing stakeholders an opportunity to engage with the process.”

Jones said First Union had only been contacted twice for audits and she has to ask to be involved.

Forestry is one of New Zealand’s most dangerous professions and FSC-certified forests are not immune to tragedy. WorkSafe did not release the names of forests where fatalities had occurred to Newsroom, but at least two fatalities of five which occurred in 2016 took place in a FSC-certified forest.

“We’re really concerned about the forestry industry overall. The MBIE report really shocked us, but also it doesn’t surprise us because that what’s we hear from our members a lot of the time.”

Jones said she is deeply concerned about the forestry industry saying offshore companies often own forests and work is contracted – and then sub-contracted out.

“It gets to the point where the lowest common denominator wins. What we need to do is get forestry to really act right.

“In terms of workers being able to participate in their own health and safety and to ensure their workers being able to have access to at least minimum standards what you have to do is ensure there is a way for workers to get access to unions.”

A New Zealand-based certification scheme separate to FSC has also been developed. It was created by the Forest Industry Safety Council, a pan-industry body which formed after several forestry fatalities in 2013.

The Safetree Contractor Certification programme is aimed at ensuring contractors know and abide with health and safety regulations and employee rights.

Jones hopes the programme “will lift the game in the forestry industry”. The process to attain certification requires discussions with workers and has an auditing process Jones described as “more robust” than the FSC’s process.

Over the next 10 years the Government plan is for one billion trees to be planted in New Zealand. Some will form part of permanent forests, others will be harvestable plantation forests. Both types of forests will require workers to plant and maintain them.

Jones said there are many problems facing the industry

“We’re really concerned about the forestry industry overall. The MBIE report really shocked us, but also it doesn’t surprise us because that what’s we hear from our members a lot of the time.

“There is so much more that needs to be done.”

Among the recommendations First Union has made reviewing the FSC national social standards are for union access to employees in order to discuss health and safety issues and a living wage for employees – even in situations where contractors or sub-contractors are used.

If these new standards were adopted, consumer confidence in the validity of the FSC tick would improve. Until then Jones said the current auditing undertaken to award an FSC tick to forestry products wasn’t ideal, but it was “better than nothing”.

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