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Forest management in Indonesia: employment, working conditions and occupational safety

B. Strehlke

Bernt Strehlke is Chief Technical Adviser of an International Labour Organisation - assisted logging school project in Fiji. He was formerly the ILO Vocational Training and Forestry and Wood Industries Specialist, based in Geneva.

This article reflects insights gained and summarizes information obtained from discussions with representatives of the Ministry of Forestry, the Ministry of Manpower and the Association of Indonesian Forest Concession Holders. Discussions took place during visits to training institutions, during the observation of the principal activities in Indonesian forest concession areas and during a workshop held in Jakarta in 1991.

The 1980 Indonesian Government policy on log production, log exporting and wood processing development, together with the 1989 policy on timber product exports, have been conducive to the expansion of the country's wood-based industry. The combined forestry and wood industries sector is now the country's second largest foreign exchange earner after oil and gas. In line with this rapid growth, the forest industries have absorbed a vast number of workers of various types at various levels.

The forestry workforce in Indonesia

Definitive statistical data on employment in Indonesia's forestry sector are not available, but estimates may be drawn from various sources. A project profile, prepared for the national Tropical Forests Action Programme (TFAP) exercise and based on data from the Association of Indonesian Forest Concession Holders (APHI), refers to "more than 800000 employees", including the formal wood industries which are predominated by plywood manufacturing (Government of Indonesia, 1991). According to data provided by the Indonesian Forestry Community and cited in Unasylva (Hasan, 1991), forestry is said to provide jobs for more than 425000 Indonesian workers. Statistics collected during an FAO project are shown in Table 1.

ILO data regarding forestry employment in the plywood industry in 1987 is given in Table 2.

From Tables 1 and 2, it appears that employment in wood harvesting and tree planting in the recent past was in the order of 80000. With increasing planting programmes, this number can be expected to grow. With an annual planting target of 300000 ha (plus subsequent weeding for two to three years) and an estimated work input of 0.2 work years per hectare, 60000 forest plantation workers may be needed full time, or more than 100000 part time. This is a very rough estimate (based on figures obtained in the field for large-scale industrial plantations) and is likely to err on the low rather than on the high side.

In wood harvesting, the key workers are chainsaw and tractor (crawler) operators. In natural forests, one chainsaw operator fells approximately ten trees per day. Assuming an average commercial volume of 5 m3 per tree and 20 working days per month, this corresponds to an annual volume of 10000 m3 per chainsaw operator. For an annual timber cut of 35 million m3, the number of chainsaw operators needed would thus be 3500, with the addition of about 3500 helpers. The number of tractor operators and their helpers would be of the same magnitude. Thus, for the felling and skidding of trees the most crucial operations from both the safety and silvicultural points of view - about 15000 workers are employed. To these must be added approximately 1000 felling and 1000 skidding supervisors.

TABLE 1. Employment in Indonesia's forestry sector, 1988-1989


Number of employees

Ministry of Forestry


Provincial forestry staff


State enterprises



Forest management and logging




Wood-based panels




Source: Kir and Kuswanda, 1990.

TABLE 2. Employment in Indonesia's plywood industry, 1987

Type of employment

Number of employees

Forest management and administration



Skilled workers


Semi-skilled workers


Unskilled workers




Source: ILO data.

Whereas a large number of workers employed in nursery work, tree-planting and the maintenance of plantations are only seasonably engaged - often only for a few months- wood harvesting is, in principle, an ongoing operation, interrupted only during bad weather and holiday periods. However, the turnover of logging workers is high. Helpers usually do not stay longer than one year. Chainsaw operators seldom exceed five years. Only tractor operators last longer up to 15 years or more.

A great deal of diversity exists in wood transport, carried out partly or wholly by means of trucks that have a loading capacity ranging from 5 to 50 tonnes. Transport distances are growing longer (often exceeding 100 km), loading is mainly done mechanically but also manually (e.g. pulpwood). Employment in this activity is therefore difficult to estimate.

In the years to come, when planted forests enter the harvesting stage, labour requirements will rapidly increase. The logging workforce can be expected to at least double within the next two decades. Therefore, the total workforce in wood harvesting and tree-planting may gradually increase to approximately 250000.

Forest workers' living conditions

There are striking differences in living conditions between industrial employees in the wood industries (e.g. in the plywood mills) and individuals actually working in the forest. Industrial workers, the majority of whom are women, enjoy relatively stable working conditions. In isolated locations they are usually provided with food, accommodation, health services, schools, mosques and churches, sports facilities, transport to town, etc. Ideally, families settle down, children receive an education and, in time, enter the company's employment.

A mobile bunk-house in an Indonesian forest camp - unattractive for families

Forest work is far more unstable. A larger part of the workers - truck drivers, mechanics and supervisors - stay in base camps. A smaller portion of the workers camp close to their work site and frequently shift location; chainsaw operators and some truck drivers, for instance.

Standards in base camps vary widely but are usually much lower than those for industrial workers. The majority of workers are single or married men whose families live elsewhere. Most workers go home regularly - as often as twice monthly if the family lives in the region, but often as infrequently as once or twice a year.

For silvicultural workers the situation is similar but often even more precarious, as the work site may shift after shorter intervals and workers are often required to provide their own camping facilities. In larger camp sites, for example near central nurseries, standards of accommodation are higher but workers may need to travel for more than an hour to reach the actual work site.

Such employment conditions are not conducive to the development of a qualified and stable workforce and they are contrary to the government's objective of generating improved working conditions for forest communities. Sustained forestry under selective harvesting or plantation management systems depends on sustainable human resources. The larger concession areas will require viable communities from which to draw the main part of their workforce. Conditions in these areas must be attractive enough to convince whole family units to remain permanently. Among other things, this will require land allocation for household gardens.

Employment conditions

A research report on the work and living conditions of logging workers in East and Central Kalimantan (RDMD-YKTI, 1987), covering three companies practising dry-land logging, two practicing swamp logging and one mangrove logging, found that practically all logging workers were provided through contractors. During the author's field visits to six companies on the outer islands, although contract work was predominant in pulpwood logging and transport, only in one company had chainsaw operators been provided through a contractor. The helpers of chainsaw operators and tractor drivers were usually recruited (often from members of the operators' own families) and paid by the operators. Therefore, although contract work undoubtedly plays an important role in Indonesian forestry work, its total extent is not known.

All logging work, but not all planting, was paid according to production. Net earnings per month ranged widely: from Rp 50000 to more than Rp 100000 for industrial workers; from Rp 200000 to Rp 400000 for chainsaw operators; from Rp 300000 to Rp 600000 for tractor operators; from Rp 250000 to Rp 700000 for truck drivers; and from Rp 60000 to Rp 100000 for tree planters. Working time was almost always defined as eight hours per day, six days per week, with a one-hour break daily. Practically everywhere, food and sufficient drinking water were carried to the work site.

Operational safety and health

It was extremely difficult to obtain information on accidents and occupational diseases. Accidents are grossly underreported. Normally, only fatalities and injuries leading to partial or total permanent incapacity for work are reported to the authorities, and even these cases are probably not fully covered, for example in contract work. Many workers leave after serious accidents. Therefore, the number of accidents recalled by those still working is not representative. In several workplaces visited, fatalities had occurred within the previous two years.

In 1978, Indonesia issued a ministerial regulation on safety and health in tree-felling and log transportation (Regulation No. PER/01/MEN/1978). Although the regulation provides detailed guidelines both by type of operation and in terms of assigning responsibilities, information on the regulation has not been adequately disseminated. Moreover, there are several aspects of the regulation, particularly in regard to use of chainsaws, that are outdated.

Dangerous working practices were observed in all workplaces, notably in tree-felling (insufficient clearing of escape routes, careless felling techniques). Practically all logging workers used safety helmets provided by the company but footwear was often insufficient - barefoot chainsaw operators were common and chainsaws lacked important safety features such as front handle guards or anti-vibration devices. Cables were usually operated barehanded. Planting tools were mostly of poor quality and bags or baskets to facilitate plant transport were missing.

A chainsaw helper in Indonesia

In an analysis of a limited number of logging accidents that had occurred in 15 logging companies from 1974 to 1990, felling accounted for about one-half of all harvesting accidents, and skidding and transport for about one-quarter each (Sastrodimedjo, 1991). Falling branches and other objects were the principal cause of accidents in felling and skidding. In all activities, but particularly in transport, ignorance or deliberate violation of safety rules and carelessness were common. Inadequately maintained equipment was also a factor.

First aid supplies were seen in only one of the work sites visited. One of the camps (catering for about 100 workers) was without a first aid assistant.

The most frequently occurring disease was malaria, which regularly affected most workers. Preventive medicine was taken only in rare cases.

If it is assumed that the overall accident situation in tropical forest logging in Indonesia resembles that of Sarawak, on which substantial statistical information has been available, it is most likely that more than 2000 Indonesians lost their lives in logging accidents over the last decade. To this number must be added about 5000 permanently and totally disabled workers. This calculation is based on a rate of one fatal accident for every 150000 m3 logged in Sarawak between 1977 and 1984.

Considerations for action

To stabilize the forest workforce, improve safety - especially in tree harvesting - and reduce damage to future tree crops and the environment in general, the following approaches might be considered.


Forest workers are well educated compared with the national average; many have completed junior and senior high school. However, in most cases, they lack any form of vocational training. To remedy this situation, a two-pronged approach would seem warranted. The first would be to introduce occupational safety and health (OSH) concepts more widely in forestry education and training. In a recent report, two officials at the Centre for Forest Education and Training indicated that OSH will become an integral part of revised curricula at the senior forestry high school (Doeryat and Sudarna, 1991). The same authors also indicate that OSH topics have been included in the curricula of at least three universities: the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Mulawarman (East Kalimantan); the Faculty of Forestry at Bogor Agricultural University; and the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Gajah Mada (Yogyakarta).

Barefoot logging is common in Indonesia

Adequate medical services, such as this one at the International Timber Corporation, in Indonesia

Training in chainsaw use and maintenance could help to improve occupational safety and health

While academic training will be a necessary part of a long-term approach to OSH, it will not address the short-term needs of workers. To provide missing skills to chainsaw operators, one week of on-the-job training by visiting instructors may be considered. This could be coupled with follow-up visits and a certification programme. Instructors could be recruited from experienced chainsaw operators and be given special training, for example through the existing forestry in-service training centres. Such training should be paralleled by the training of lead workers in felling and skidding planning and control. Logging managers should be carefully informed about the nature and potential benefit of training workers and should encourage them to enroll in courses.

Code of conduct on forest work

It is necessary to update existing safety regulations for wood harvesting and, especially, to increase awareness of them among the logging companies and the workers. This may done through the development of a forest work code combined with environmental standards in logging activities (a similar effort has been developed successfully in Fiji) and work camp conditions. Future concession agreements should require compliance with such a code. All forestry trainees should become familiar in the course of training with the code on forest work. Special in-service training courses would be required to make the code well known among existing field staff at managerial and supervisory levels.

Study of fatal accidents

For a period of one year, all forestry concessions should be requested to participate in a special inquiry on fatal forest accidents which could be carried out through a research project with the Ministries of Forestry and Manpower. A special effort should be made to record all fatalities and to investigate a representative sample on the spot. If well presented, the findings would be an excellent motivator for preventive measures.

Cross-cutting with adequate protective equipment


There is growing concern in Indonesia about the considerable occupational safety and health risks in forestry work, especially in wood harvesting. The close links between safe working habits, operational efficiency and reduction of damage to the environment and to future crops are becoming increasingly recognized. To move forward, a coordinated programme of action, aimed at improving occupational safety and health as well as the living conditions of forest workers, could be implemented in line with the requirements for sustained management of forest resources.

Action could be taken to initiate specific training and information at the following levels:

· logging workers, particularly chainsaw operators (primarily through instruction at the work site);
· supervisors (emphasizing planning and control of directional felling and extraction);
· managers up to the top level (explaining the need for and benefits of improved worker safety and health).

The existing regulations on occupational safety and health in forestry, on wood harvesting planning techniques and on environmental protection could be updated, supplemented and harmonized in a code of practice. This code could then be formulated and prepared in such a way that it could be easily disseminated and understood at the operational level.

Finally, to improve the information base for training and extension, a continuous data collection system should be established on occupational safety and health in forestry. Additionally, consideration should be given to carrying out studies on motivation and attitudes of workers and work site supervisors and on the relationship between work safety, production efficiency and environmental stability. Employers should also be motivated to increase safety standards as well as worker training in safety and to provide incentives for workers to observe safety rules.


Doeryat, H.M. & Sudarna, A. 1991. Occupational safety and health aspects in forestry education and training. In ILO, ed. Proc. Indonesia/ILO Workshop Occupational Safety and Health and Working Conditions as a Basis for Operational Efficiency and Sustainability of Tropical Forest Management. Jakarta, 13-14 March 1991. Geneva, ILO.

Government of Indonesia. 1991. Indonesian Tropical Forests Action Programme, Vols 1-3. Jakarta, Government of Indonesia.

Hassan, M. 1991. The Indonesian wood panel industry. Unasylva, 42(167): 11-15.

ILO, ed. 1991. Proc. Indonesia/ILO Workshop Occupational Safety and Health and Working Conditions as a Basis for Operational Efficiency and Sustainability of Tropical Forest Management. Jakarta, 13-14 March 1991. Geneva, ILO.

Kir, A. & Kuswanda, M. 1990. Manpower appraisal for the forest sector in Indonesia. Field Document No. VII-2. Forestry Studies Project UTF/INS/065/INS. Jakarta, Government of Indonesia.

RDMD-YKTI. 1987. The conditions of work and life of logging workers in East and Central Kalimantan. Jakarta, Research and Documentation Centre for Manpower and Development - Yayasan Tenaga Kerja Indonesia. 101 pp.

Sastrodimedjo, S. 1991. Safety problems of wood harvesting in natural forests. In ILO, ed. Proc. Indonesia/ILO Workshop Occupational Safety and Health and Working Conditions as a Basis for Operational Efficiency and Sustainability of Tropical Forest Management. Jakarta, 13-14 March 1991. Geneva, ILO.

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