Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Tree planting at $400/day

Recent publicity about a shortage of tree planters and beneficiaries "unwilling to work" has misrepresented the situation, providing abundant fodder for those who prefer to bash beneficiaries rather than do something positive for the world. Let's examine the facts.

There appears to be a shortage of people willing to take up silvicultural work, not just planting but also pruning, thinning and other operations. I haven't seen surveys about this, but interactions with forestry companies and consultants suggest that the shortage is real. Most forestry companies have preferred contractors doing these operations whom they look after. This is notable, because, at time of writing, Te Uru Rakau (a new department of the Ministry for Primary Industries that was created to fulfill the promise of a new government forest agency) reports some 65 million trees planted in year one, only 7.5 million of which have been government-funded under the "one billion trees" policy. All 65 million trees count towards our "one billion" target over ten years, but roughly 500 million trees would have been replanted to replace harvested forests over ten years by these forestry companies even without any "one billion trees" policy from government. The policy actually promises 500 million new trees, or more logically (because trees naturally kill each other as they compete for space), approximately 500,000 ha of new forest.

Most silvicultural tasks are seasonal, and the days when a worker could easily do them while in a full-time, secure job, with holiday pay, sick leave and prospects of a career are gone. The New Zealand Forest Service used to offer workers these conditions, but the service was destroyed by overeager "reformers" in 1987. Silvicultural tasks are now mostly done or at least organised by contractors. Many contractors are highly competent, and those are the ones that companies look after, ensuring that they'll have on-going work. However, an increase in planting rates means more planters are required, and large forestry companies are unlikely to take up the contracts offered by Te Uru Rakau. Owners of small areas of land and forestry consultants who take up the task are going to have to secure new tree planters, so why doesn't $400/day attract the workers they need?

Firstly, $400/day is really a lie. At 60 cents/tree you need to plant 83 trees/hour in an 8 hour day to earn $400 before tax. A seasoned tree planter might achieve this on flat land with pre-cultivated soil, but those conditions are going to be rare. Some of you may take to the web to find world record tree planting rates. The world record for an 8 hour day used to be held by a New Zealander, Tamati, who planted in excess of 6,500 in 8 hours on the Crater block near Waiotapu during the 1970s. I worked alongside Tamati in 1975 and he was a phenomenal athlete & worker, but additional factors were at play. He was planting on very gentle, pastured land, with soil cultivated by a machine, and people running alongside him handing him seedlings so that he could break the world record. Moreover, many trees in the Crater block acquired a lean when they were about two years old, which may have been at least partly caused by substandard planting. Flat, fertile dairy land is unlikely to be available for our extra forest. Most of the land will be sloping, and on many sites soil cultivation will not be feasible. Walking across it may be difficult because of steep slopes or obstructions like brushweeds. People aren't going to run alongside tree planters handing them trees, and planting quality will be important. I've planted tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of trees in my time, and I'd be very hard pushed to earn $400/day doing it properly.

Secondly, the work is likely to be remote, difficult and precarious. Traveling to the work site will be an issue. Most beginners won't earn very much, and when the planting season (June to September) is over, there's unlikely to be any on-going work and so laid off workers will have to re-register with Work and Income NZ. A good manager in the NZ Forest Service would ensure that full-time workers were gainfully employed throughout the year, and a keen worker could hope to be promoted, trained and have a decent career. Accommodation would be available on-site. One of my earliest memories from my days as a newly minted professional forester at Waiotapu subdivision, Kaingaroa Forest, in 1975 is of a retirement hangi for a leading hand (one step up from a basic worker) who had been a valued member of the Forest Service for 40 years. I don't see any of that happening in the "one billion trees" programme. Te Uru Rakau is handing out contracts rather than offering careers for those actually doing the work. Can the workers really expect to be valued, have security, and perhaps a step up into a career?

Achieving a policy target in a financially efficient manner is probably a strong motivator for public service employees, but should this be a prime motivation for a government that claims to measure success as well-being rather than simply as GDP growth? Maybe it is time for government policy to extend to how the 500 million new trees are planted, how planters are treated, and what attempts are made to offer them security, hope, a career and a sense that they are cared for; that they matter.