If a boss asked a group of employees to work 30 per cent harder for the same money, that request would likely fall on deaf ears.
The workers might go looking for new jobs in a better-paying industry and chances are that new line of work would not be treeplanting.
John Betts has done his share of pounding down trees as a planter and he can now see a lot more a lot more "schnarb" than "cream" on the province's reforestation landscape. Given the prices now offered contractors to regenerate logged areas, treeplanting is nowhere near as profitable as it once was and until those prices rise, planting companies are in dogfight for survival.
"The industry has a tendency to undervalue itself and one of the trends that's distressing to the sector is the average wage rate per tree, with inflation, is 30 per cent less than what it was 10 years ago," said Betts, executive director of the Western Silvicultural Contractors Association (WSCA).
"Our workers are working at rates we were paying back in 2000 or earlier and we know what the costs of inflation have been. That makes it difficult for contractors to compete in the market. It's to the advantage of licensees to keep prices as low as they can and the problem we're all going to face now that is with pressure to keep costs down, the industry works literally on the backs of the employees. We haven't been keeping up with the wages they need to earn and deserve, given how hard they work."
The fallout is predictable -- fewer new workers wanting to be treeplanters and a migration of veteran planters into other occupations. The lure of working 10-hour days of hard labour exposed to the elements and sleeping in worker-funded camps for less-than-premium wages is not what it once was. In exit polls of workers taken by the WSCA last year, only half of B.C.'s treeplanters were making $250 per day or more, before taxes. The rest were making less.
"If you come into the sector and are busting your ass to make $20 an hour or less, that's not an attractive feature to the industry because you can go on construction and make the same wage and work a lot less harder, or go up north and make triple the wage and still not work as hard," Betts said.
After three straight years of planting less than 200 million trees, B.C. companies are on pace to plant about 230 million trees this year with crews working at peak capacity, and that's expected to reach 260 million by next year. However, Betts said planting all those seedlings, which have a limited shelf life, won't be possible if there's a shortage of skilled workers. And if the U.S. housing market regains its strength, the entire B.C. forest industry will struggle to keep up to the demand.
"The industry has to prepare for that," said Betts, from his office in Nelson. "Obviously there's going to have to be an improvement in wages to workers and there's going to have to be improvement in the money available to the contractors.
"The influx of new workers, assuming we can find them, takes more supervision and they are less productive in the first few years, and those costs will have to be built in. There's going to have to be a turnaround in the market or we will be in a very difficult situation in 2013."
The payroll for contract workers involved in treeplanting, spacing, brushing and forest firefighting approaches $100 million annually in B.C. and Betts said most of that is generated in a three-month period. But with more forest restoration activity, he sees no reason that season can't be extended to help the industry retain its workers.
"Our work force feels it's underemployed," he said. "We have to get more work at better prices out to the industry and recruit more people and spend more time training them to be quicker, more effective planters."
In February, Pat Bell, the provincial Jobs, Tourism and Skills Development Minister, announced $550,000 in funding over three years for the B.C. Silviculture Sector Labour Market Strategy project to develop a human resource strategy to help the industry develop, recruit and retain workers. That's a good start, but Betts says its time the federal government also stepped up to the plate to support the industry.
"We are looking forward to the federal government renewing its interest in partnering with the province on restoration strategies like we did in the 1980s through the forest resource development joint-funding agreements," said Betts.
"The federal and provincial governments have to work together to stimulate new economies and I'm not seeing that collaboration to the extent it is warranted in B.C. The feds have been much more willing to put money for silviculture into other provinces than they have here. Quebec, being a good example, got $120 million this year, and $200 million a few years before."
The silviculture workforce shortages now being experienced in B.C. are unprecedented. According to WorkSafeBC statistics, only 76 of the 244 companies registered for treeplanting or cone-picking in B.C. in 2000 were still in operation at the start of this year. The province had 364 companies in 2000 that did brushing, tree thinning, weeding or spacing and only 53 remained in business this year. Betts was surprised to learn longer-established contractors do not have a greater market share than a relatively new treeplanting company of a similar size.
"You have a lot of turnover in the sector and you would think the firms that have endured this long, that have been in the industry for at least 10 years or longer might be capturing more of the work because of their reputation, their experience and skill, but that's not the case," said Betts.
"If you're an upstart company you have as good of a chance of getting business as a company that's 10 years old. You have a lot of degrees of sophistication in terms of does the company have a good business sense and know how to run a company. We see evidence of that in that a number of firms don't meet their payroll or borrow their workers' payroll to fund their company because they don't have the assets to go to a bank and get a line of credit."
A treeplanters' camp near Golden was shut down in July by the provincial government when it was discovered the 30 workers, mostly immigrants from Africa, were living in squalid, slave-like conditions. The company, Khaira Enterprises of Surrey, has since been barred from government work for a year and the labour ministry is withholding its security deposit. Betts says that should serve as a wake-up call for planters to stand up for their rights and make sure camp conditions are satisfactory.
"The Khaira example gave us a national black eye," said Betts. "To be accused of slavery in Canada doesn't really attract young people to the industry.
"But it still has a lot of great things going for it. It is good healthy outdoor work, you get to make friends and get to be in parts of the province you've never seen, and you're going to be challenged in ways no hourly job would ever do to you. You develop a self-motivated work ethic and you're paid on the basis of your merit. For many, the treeplanting experience molds them for how they approach life going forward."