Decent work in forestry? Enhancing forestry work and forest-based livelihoods

Peter Blombäck 1 & Peter Poschen


The forestry sector is in the grips of globalization, while at the same time attempting to make forestry development sustainable. Both trends are major conditioning factors for livelihoods, employment and working conditions.

In a natural resource-based sector like the forest industry, the links between sustainable development and the International Labour Organization (ILO) goal of decent work come out more clearly than in other sectors. There is a large measure of congruity between the social dimensions of sustainable development in forestry, as set out in international agreements, and the goal of decent work: opportunities for women and men to obtain productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity.

Sustainability, the prospect of enhancing forest work and forest-based livelihoods in a rapidly globalizing world, and the goal of decent work for all adopted by the ILO constituents, are closely interrelated. Forests need to be socially beneficial in order to contribute to the objective of sustainable development. Moreover, benefits derived from the existence and management of forests and accruing to people living in and around them may actually be a precondition for the conservation of forests.

1. Introduction

Forestry livelihoods, employment and working conditions should be discussed in the light of two powerful political and economic developments: globalization and sustainability.

Globalization is clearly gaining momentum in forestry and accelerating the structural changes that have taken place over recent decades. Falling tariffs and regulation facilitating and encouraging foreign direct investment (FDI) are important driving forces. Globalization presents advantages and provides new opportunities, but also comprises risks. The far-reaching and rapid changes caused by globalization have also led to concerns over repercussions on employment levels and forest-based livelihoods, over job security, working conditions and rights at work (ILO, 2001a).

Employment is a key social benefit of forestry. However, the picture remains incomplete without consideration of the quality of forest-based employment in terms of income and working and living conditions. The paper highlights some problems in the sector and proposes an agenda for improvements.

2. Jobs growing on trees - forest-based livelihoods

This section briefly examines what forests are contributing to the goal of access to jobs and incomes for all.

The volume of employment

Forests are a significant source of employment and income for the primary extractive and secondary manufacturing sectors. Total forest-based employment is around 47 million full-time equivalents worldwide (ILO, 2001a). Formal sector employment is more than 17 million. Employment in the informal sector is much higher (Figure 1). Numbers for the latter are mere orders of magnitude based on "guesstimates" (Poschen, 1997).

Figure 1. Estimates of global forest-based employment by subsector

While informal and subsistence employment are predominantly found in developing countries, industrial employment is spread more evenly. The top 15 countries by formal forest sector industry employment are shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Employment in the forest industries: Top 15 countries (late 1990s)

Source: ILO, 2001

Trends in forestry employment

Prospects for increased formal employment in the industry are not bright. Labour productivity has consistently outpaced increases in output and therefore employment has been falling in most industrialized countries, a trend that is expected to continue.

In the 1980s and 1990s, this decline mostly affected northern and western Europe. In the future, Central and Eastern Europe, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and China are expected to be most affected. The total workforce in Europe and the CIS is expected to shrink by 7% in the next decade (ECE, 2003). Employment has also been affected by logging bans and other restrictions on forest harvesting.

The picture is brighter in developing countries that are not facing forest resource shortages. Several countries in Asia and Latin America have benefited from increasing FDI and expanding export markets. Employment has increased - rapidly, in some cases - and should continue to do so in the medium term. Competition among low-cost countries is mounting, however, and will force increases in productivity and quality, thereby slowing or reversing job creation. With the exception of South Africa, African countries have not capitalized on their resource potential.

Subsistence employment is likely to decline in most countries, although in Africa it is likely to decline more slowly. Informal employment is probably growing in most developing countries. Unfortunately, it is often employment of last resort, providing very low, unstable incomes and poor working conditions.

Forestry - a source of improved rural livelihoods?

As a basis for rural employment, the role of forestry is somewhat contradictory. On one hand, owners of small, private forests often derive a significant share of their income from their forests, which can be a major complement to farming or off-farm employment. Complementarity cannot be taken for granted, however. Where forestry competes with agriculture for land, increases in forest cover typically lead to substantial losses of employment (Poschen, 1997; ILO, 2001a). Moreover, many of the jobs offered are seasonal and short-term and go to outsiders.

There are a few examples where the shift into forestry has increased employment. In Uruguay, forest plantations have generated almost ten times as many jobs per hectare as the alternative land use, extensive cattle rearing (Forworknet, 2002).

3. Decent work in forests?

Decent work is to work productively in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity. How is forestry doing in this respect? While there is no single answer to the question (see Poschen, 1997), some deficits remain painfully associated with the sector.

Quality of employment and job security

Working conditions, safety and health

For overviews of the occupational safety and health situation in forestry, see ILO (1991 and 1997) and FAO (1993). Forestry in general and logging in particular continue to be among the three most dangerous occupations in almost all countries. Forestry work is also beset by serious health problems related to high physical workloads, exposure to climatic extremes, noise and vibration (see ILO, 1991; 1992 and 1997). Few workers reach normal retirement age.

While there are signs of decreasing accident levels, there are also examples where the safety and health situation has deteriorated, for instance in many Central and Eastern European countries, where the drive towards land restitution has brought many inexperienced new owners to the forests. In Slovenia, the frequency of fatal accidents in non-professional forest work jumped from 5 fatalities per million m3 in 1988 to 16 in 1991 (Medved, 1999). Part of this increase could be attributed to the big windfall in the early 1990s. However, it has since stabilized at a significantly higher level than before 1988 (Begus, 2002).

The safety and health situation is most problematic among the self-employed, farmers and contractors. Safety is not the only issue with forestry contractors, however.

Outsourcing: the quality of employment among contractors

Over recent decades, contract labour has been developing as the standard mode of forest operations in many countries. In some countries, this is traditional. In others, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, it is a new development. In Poland the share of contract labour rose from zero to around 75% during the last decade. Also, in developing countries such as Brazil and South Africa, there was a pronounced push towards contracting during the 1990s, making it the dominant work arrangement.

The swift change to outsourcing has often meant that measures to ensure acceptable working conditions and safety standards have lagged behind. Contractors and their employees often experience disadvantages such as short-term contracts, discontinuous employment, greater safety and health hazards, low profitability, long working hours and lack of qualification (in terms of both management and technical skills). Surveys in Finland (Mäkinen, 1999), Chile (Wenzel and Fecci, 1998) and South Africa (Manyuchi, 2002) show that most have lost out in pay and benefits. Labour turnover among contractors continues to be high (e.g. INFOR, 1998 for Chile).


Globally, forestry wages are generally below the average of other industries, including wood and pulp and paper. In industrialized countries, forestry wages seem to be more in parity with the manufacturing sectors. In many developing countries, they are at or close to the minimum wage.


Protection of rights at work is not a simple matter in the forestry and wood industries, as most workplaces are in remote often temporary locations. Serious violations of fundamental rights have been documented in recent years.

Female workers - an overlooked group

Although women are important in the wood industry and forestry operations around the world, their work is often overlooked. Women are often strongly under-represented in management and decision-making and so have difficulties advocating for their rights. They tend to be trapped in low-status, low-paid work and there is often infringement on legislation requiring equality of treatment (FAO/ECE/ILO, 2001).

Women may also be more exposed to significant health risks than men. While their physical work capacity is on average one-third lower than that of men, women are sometimes overrepresented in physically demanding work. In South Africa they are dominantly employed in manual log debarking, which is heavy work and the most injury-prone task, with an accident rate of 38% (Manyuchi, 2002). Women are often engaged in silvicultural work, which can be heavy and mean exposure to hazardous chemicals.

Migrant and clandestine workers

Migrant and clandestine forestry workers have become an issue of increasing concern worldwide. These workers are often subject to human rights violations and poor working conditions. They have the most dangerous jobs and they are the least protected in terms of financial resources, education, access to medical care, unionization, workers' compensation, and health and safety. In Asian countries like Malaysia, clandestine and migrant work is often linked to illegal logging activities. Working conditions are often appalling.

Indigenous people and other forest-dependent communities

Globalization and FDI have contributed to the incidence of conflicts between forest industries and government forest policies on the one hand, and indigenous peoples on the other. The traditional livelihoods of Pygmies in Central and Western Africa are under huge pressure from major logging activities and commercial hunting. Numerous conflicts over land rights oppose indigenous communities and the forest industry in the Americas. In Asia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea have been a focus of disputes between forest industries and communities. Indigenous people are particularly vulnerable to coercive labour conditions when outside their own communities (ILO, 2001b).

Child and forced labour

The use of child labour in industrial logging and charcoal making has been reported in Brazil. Both child and bonded labour have been reported from states in the Amazon region (ILO, 2001b). The ILO has also found evidence of forced labour in connection with teak logging in Myanmar and with Dayaks in logging concessions and forest plantations in Indonesia.

Social dialogue

Social dialogue is defined by the ILO to include all types of negotiation, consultation or simply exchange of information between, or among, representatives of governments, employers, workers and other interest groups, on issues of common interest relating to economic and social policy.

In forestry, the institutions of social dialogue and the organizations involved are often weak. Unionization rates are low and although forest industry associations often exist, they seldom function as employers' organizations, particularly in developing countries. In all countries, the trend towards outsourcing has complicated organization and the establishment of fora for social dialogue. Another problem is the absence of women in local networks, associations and trade unions.

4. An agenda for improvement

As discussed above, there is potential for forestry to contribute to employment and income from the primary extractive and secondary manufacturing sectors. Creating the conditions for local people to obtain gainful employment in plantations, forest harvesting and downstream processing is also an effective way of sharing the benefits of industry development and winning local support. Expectations concerning numbers of possible jobs should be rather modest. Most opportunities to spread the benefits of forestry development will only be realized if the quality of jobs is improved.

More jobs

The promotion of further, value-added processing and skills-based supplies and services can partly compensate for the loss of employment in forestry and primary wood processing and significantly enhance the contribution to overall economic development. Small and medium-sized enterprises account for a substantial proportion of the contribution that the forestry and wood industries make to economic and social development of local communities, rural areas and countries.

More attention to local development effects in designing forestry programmes and industry projects will be crucial, if forestry is to contribute to alleviating poverty. For many forest-dependent communities, commercial forestry is the only viable pathway for improving their standard of living. However, little has been done to help local people use their forest assets in a sustainable manner or to benefit from the growing demand for forest products (Poschen, 1991; CIFOR, 2002a). Interventions to date have focused on improving access to raw material, with relatively little attention to markets, marketing or matching supply to demand (Arnold, 2001).

A growing number of governments and forestry firms are moving into plantations, which can make an important contribution to timber supplies, forestry industry development and ultimately more jobs.

Outgrower schemes show how closer industry-community cooperation can offer more socially and culturally oriented development based on forest plantations. The schemes can be an alternative or a complement to industrial plantations (CIFOR, 2002b). Outgrower schemes in South Africa contribute 12-45% of the income needed to keep a household above the poverty line (Mayers et al., 2001).

Such schemes do not always benefit the poorest, as land is a limiting factor. As markets increasingly reward short-term behaviour that policies and laws permit (Mayers, 2000), governments are needed as regulators and brokers. Safeguards in the form of genuine local participation, clear criteria, transparent procedures and social impact assessment increase the likelihood of benefit to both industry and locals. Training and guidance on safety and health are vital.

Better jobs

Job security will be a major issue for the next two decades, as the transition continues to a workforce predominantly of contractors and the self-employed. Governments and the private sector should promote professionalism among contractors and discourage bad and illegal practices. Establishment of contractor associations to provide services and extension should be encouraged.

In recent years more attention has been paid to the relationship between working conditions and productivity (see Strehlke and Johansson, 1996; FAO/ECE/ILO, 1998). The potential for raising productivity by improving working conditions is, however, often underutilized. This is largely due to lack of evidence concerning the cost/benefit ratio of such investment. The benefits are particularly difficult to quantify. More research could provide much needed evidence to decision-makers.

An example of a hands-on way in which social partners in a number of countries have been building on the relationship between decent work and sustainable development is seen in the codes of forest practices incorporating productivity concerns, as well as protection of the environment and the workforce. The ILO Code of Practice on Safety and Health in Forestry Work (ILO, 1998) has become a reference document for firms, and national safety regulation and certification schemes such as the Pan-European Certification Scheme and the Forest Stewardship Council.

Fundamental rights

Job quality in forestry leaves much to be desired. The universal application of fundamental rights is a minimum step towards decent jobs (see Box 1 below).

Box 1. ILO Core Conventions

A group that often sees these rights denied is women. Governments should take measures to improve information on women's role. In cooperation with employers and workers, governments should ensure that women receive equal remuneration and equal opportunity and treatment with respect to access to education, training, credit and small enterprise promotion. This should include measures to help workers reconcile work and family responsibilities. Women should have adequate maternity protection according to national law and practice. Workplaces should be free from sexual harassment. This is particularly important in remote areas.

The issues of equal treatment and opportunity should also cover groups such as elderly workers, migrant workers and indigenous people.

Social dialogue

One of the best ways to ensure that social and labour aspects are adequately covered in the definition and practice of sustainable forest management is to seek the active participation of employers, workers, contractors, local communities and other relevant groups. Like the decent work framework, sustainable development considers participation and social dialogue as both ends and means, i.e. as instruments to achieve particular goals as well as a right.

Social dialogue should be conducted in a fair and open manner, provide access to information and seek to resolve disagreement by consensus. Government should establish and periodically convene national and regional tripartite fora for the forestry and wood industries to facilitate regular exchange about social and labour issues, to promote the application of the ILO Core standards and as a mechanism to achieve consensus about the sustainable development of the forestry and wood industries.

Certification of forest management is perhaps the most widely known and applied measure to promote decent work in forestry. Social aspects such as working conditions and occupational safety and health, as well as skills requirements, have sometimes been incorporated into such schemes. Certification should be transparent and certification standards should include a minimum coverage of social aspects with regard to working conditions, sharing in benefits and participation in decision making based on core ILO conventions (Poschen, 2000).


A sustainable base of forest resources is a vital precondition for the future of the forestry and wood industries. Unsustainable land use, including excessive levels of forest harvesting and poor logging practices, have led to drastic reductions in raw material availability in a number of countries, entailing among other consequences the loss of large numbers of jobs and rural livelihoods. The exclusion of local populations from the benefits of forest management has been a major driving factor.

Governments, private forest owners and the forest industry should adopt long-term policies and management plans for forests, as well as strategies for industry development, in order to secure a reliable resource base for industry activity and growth. These policies, plans and strategies should include adequate provisions and financial resources for social and labour aspects of sector development such as employment, income generation, improvement of working conditions and safety, as well as upgrading of skills. Workers should participate in making the decisions that will affect them.

Without decent jobs and livelihoods, forest management is not sustainable.


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1 International Labour Organization (ILO), CH-1211 Geneva 22, Switzerland. [email protected]