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Social progress for forest workers

Professor of Forest Economics, University of Helsinki, Finland.

IN recent years there has been growing interest in forest labor questions and the human aspects of forestry.1 This is partly because one of the youngest branches of forest science, work studies, has initiated research into the techniques of forest work.

1Adapted from a paper presented at the Fifth World Forestry Congress.

Competition with other industries for the acquisition of labor, the scarcity of forest workers at certain times and in some countries, and general problems connected with employment and unemployment have compelled foresters to give more attention to the forest worker, not only as a production factor but also as a human factor in forestry. The literature on the subject is already quite extensive.

Although the International Labour Organisation (ILO) was established as early as 1919, it was rather late in beginning its first special study of forest labor. During the 1930's it collected data on occupational safety and health conditions in forestry. It was not until 1938, however, that more positive action was contemplated. In that year the International Labour Conference passed certain resolutions regarding a worldwide inquiry into the living conditions of forest workers, and the setting up of a joint committee on questions concerning forest labor. The Committee was to have consisted of representatives of the three main groups in ILO and of other international bodies concerned. Preparations for this inquiry were interrupted by the second world war.

Since the war the most important international meeting so far held to discuss these problems has been the Tripartite Technical Meeting on the Timber Industry, convened by ILO in Geneva in 1958. It was attended by a total of 152 people representing governments, employers' organizations and workers' organisations of the 22 countries invited. Thorough preparations had been made by ILO, and a series of resolutions and memoranda concerning accident prevention, working conditions and workers' welfare in logging camps, and labor/management relations were adopted.

The International Federation of Building and Wood Workers which includes forest workers has, during its conferences since 1937, shown keen interest in forest labor questions and has made several proposals.

FAO and the UN Economic Commission for Europe have established a Joint Committee on Forest Working Techniques and Training of Forest Workers. A similar committee is being started by FAO's Asia-Pacific Forestry Commission. The FAO Conference in November 1959 singled out for special mention the co-operation of ILO in this work.

If the social problems of forest workers were similar to those of the manufacturing industries, this topic would need no special discussion or study. But forest work is in several respects very different from work in factories. Some of its peculiarities, particularly instability as regards place and time, dependence on weather and climate, remoteness of places of work from centers of population, the strenuous nature of the work, and great variations in conditions affecting output per day or hour which make it so difficult to calculate wage rates for piece work, etc., impede the solution of the social problems of forest workers.

For the sake of brevity, only some of the worst obstacles - and their impact on social progress for forest workers - are dealt with here. Long-distance timber transport, and work in sawmills, pulp and paper mills and other manufacturing industries are excluded.

Among forest workers, forest owners working in their own forests, cutting and hauling timber either for sale or intended for their own use, carrying out forest improvements, etc., form a special group of their own. In this case there is no labor/management relation as employer and employee are the same person. Working conditions depend on the worker himself, and his social position is the same as it is in his other work. Wages are only an item for the books - i.e., the total price of timber can be divided between stumpage and wages in whichever way he wants to note them in his accounts.

This kind of work carried out by the farmer himself or members of his family is common in farm forests. In countries, with a high percentage of such forests where it is the custom to sell timber ready cut at the roadside, the labor input of these self-employed farmers is considerable. According to Heikinheimo, work done by farmers in their own forests in Finland during 1950 accounted for as much as 45 percent of the total labor input in forestry calculated in man-days. This percentage may be higher than in any other country.

But in dealing with the social problems of forest workers, the group mentioned above is generally excluded and only hired labor is referred to. What follows should be taken in this restricted meaning.

Instability of forest work

Probably the most difficult problem and the most peculiar feature of forest work is the high degree of instability in many countries.

First, there is local instability caused by shifting of the places of work. In the early stages in some countries logging operations were almost nomadic as indicated by the old saying "cut out and get out." This was particularly prevalent in North America where virgin timber resources used to be managed like mines. But even in developed forestry, where sustained yield is considered, as a rule the work moves on from place to place. In small wood lots the annual movements are so small that they have no effect on labor conditions. On the other hand, in large public or private forests, logging areas and silvicultural operations may move such distances - if not every year at least every few years - that housing has to be completely reorganized.

The more the sustained or progressive yield principle is respected and applied to smaller areas and the more intensive forestry becomes, the less it is necessary to move logging camps. Thus local instability can be considered a surmountable obstacle.

Much worse are the seasonal fluctuations, mostly caused by the climate. They form an important factor in countries with great differences between summer and winter, particularly northern Europe, Canada, the northern parts of the U.S.S.R. and some parts of the U.S.A., where the land is snowbound in winter during a long period. In these conditions logging is to a large extent carried out in winter. As logging requires more labor input than all other forms of forest work together, there is a distinct cyclical movement in forest work with the peak in winter. In some parts of the world an excess of snow, rainy periods, fire hazard periods, etc., cause interruptions in the operations, and more or less cyclical fluctuations.

These cycles are the principal reason for the peculiar structure of the forest labor force in many countries, where labor can be divided into professional, regular seasonal, and occasional workers. The term "professional" in this context applies to those who are mainly occupied in forestry. Their number cannot be higher than the number of workers required during the slackest season of the year. Regular seasonal and occasional workers must be employed by other industries for a longer or shorter part of the year. A large number of them are farmers or farm hands who cannot find sufficient employment in agriculture during winter.

If the seasonal cycles are violent, the ratio of permanent workers is small. The term "permanent" in this context indicates that the same worker/employer relationship lasts a long time.

Where the proportion of seasonal and occasional workers is high, as in Scandinavia and eastern Canada, many social problems facing forest workers - housing, the establishment of organized labor/management relations, training, social insurance - are a source of great difficulty. It is no wonder that so much research work and experimentation has been done to find ways of "deseasonalizing" forest work. The problem has received particular attention in Canada, Scandinavia, and the U.S.S.R.

The mechanization of forest work, the improvement of roads and transportation, better labor planning, new forms of housing etc., seem to offer possibilities of stabilizing forest employment - if not yet completely, at least to some extent. This trend has also been necessary in regions where there are no farmers ready to go to the forests in wintertime or where the number of such people is not sufficient for large-scale logging operations. This is particularly true in certain parts of Canada and the U.S.S.R. In Sweden it has been noted that, although forest work and agricultural work have traditionally been alternative occupations for farmers, there is now a trend in some areas for the two occupations to be practiced separately by different groups of people. For example, in February 1954 as much as 38 percent of the workers in the state forests and those owned by the forest industries companies were permanent. The decreasing number of the agricultural population and the advantages of a permanent labor force explain this trend.

My own country, Finland, is in a special position as regards this problem. Our foresters are convinced that a larger proportion of permanent professional forest workers is beneficial both for forestry and for the workers. A lot of work has been done and is being done to push development ahead in this direction. The seasonal fluctuations have been decreasing. But we cannot take advantage of all the possibilities that modern techniques and organization open up because we have a large number of small farmers for whom forest work is absolutely essential in winter. This national employment problem is an obstacle to the progress of "de-seasonalization" in forest work.

Security of employment

In many countries forestry is very sensitive to business cycles. This results to a large extent from the rather heavy fluctuations in the building industry, which is the most important customer of the sawmills. As logging is the biggest item in forest work, the fluctuations in annual quantities out can be very large. Where such fluctuations prevail they pose a difficult problem for the maintenance of security of employment.

The annual fluctuations and the seasonal character of forest work make many social security measures much more difficult than in manufacturing industries. This is the case in regard to unemployment insurance or other forms of unemployment compensation and old age pension schemes payable by the employer. Accident insurance is no longer a problem, though there are some minor difficulties peculiar to forestry.

It is difficult to establish and maintain labor unions among seasonal and occasional workers. This is true particularly in countries where forest labor includes a large number of farmers. They often consider themselves as belonging to a different social group from professional forest workers and perhaps they already belong to farmers' organizations with different interests. The short working periods, the shifting and changing nature of forest work, the high turnover of workers, and, in many cases, the difficulty of finding meeting-rooms, etc., are also reasons why forest workers in some countries are organized into unions to a very small extent. The more stable logging is, the stronger is the forest labor organization. The West Coast in America may be mentioned as an example. In such cases it is easier to establish regular and effective labor/management relations. This was widely discussed at the tripartite technical meeting arranged by ILO referred to earlier, and a long memorandum was adopted, including ideas for collective bargaining, consultation and co-operation, the settlement of disputes, and training.


One of the major forest labor problems is housing. In countries or regions with a dense population, and good roads and transport, the forest workers can live at home. From a social point of view this is a good solution and is the case, for instance, over large parts of central Europe. If the workers' houses under such conditions are poor and call for improvement, that is not a special problem of forestry.

In large remote forests, accommodation must be organized differently. So far, logging camps have been the most common solution in many countries, but such camps are generally built only for the workers, not for their families. This system is known in all regions with a sparse population and long distances to population centers. Many countries have laws or bylaws as to minimum requirements. Generally, too, some system of inspection has been established.

At the tripartite technical meeting a special memorandum was adopted covering proposals on the location of camps, heating, lighting and ventilation, furniture and beds, protection from insects, sanitary and bathing installations, places for drying clothes, feeding arrangements, health and hygiene, recreation and administration.

A weak point in this housing system is that men are generally compelled to live away from their families for a long time. In other respects, too, long periods in a small camp always with the same people may lead to dissatisfaction.

As the road system and transport improve, more and more of the workers can live at home or at least return there for the weekend. But where this is not possible, camps are so far the only solution for seasonal and occasional workers.

As mentioned before, great interest is now being shown in increasing the proportion of permanent professional workers, This trend offers opportunities for improving housing, and two different systems have been adopted. "Forest villages" are being built at reasonable distances from places of work. The villages are built for families and therefore provided as far as possible with schools, shops, facilities for recreation, etc. This system is to a large extent in use in the U.S.S.R.

Another way is to build solitary houses or small groups of houses for forest workers, so located that a sufficient amount of work can be ensured for the whole year. Life is easier for the family if the houses can be built in or near a village. This system is much in favor in Scandinavia.

The houses can be owned either by the employer or by the worker.

In several countries the trend seems to be toward permanent housing of the worker with his family. Sweden, for instance, has made such progress in this direction since the second world war that logging camps are slowly becoming less necessary. The improvement of transport also contributes to the trend.

Wages and training

Wages in forestry involve some peculiarities. To a very large extent work is paid at piece rates. But these rates are often difficult to calculate fairly for the worker. Trees and tree species differ in size and shape, the terrain, the weather and the number of trees to be cut per acre vary, as, too, do marketing requirements, etc. Nowadays, the wage rates are more often based on objective time and motion studies, but even go the systems are frequently complicated. Disputes may also occur between the worker and the employer's representative as to the measure and quality of timber cut. In some countries, official systems are arranged with legal measures in the event of dispute. Such difficulties can be overcome with the aid of work science.

The training of forest workers is also an important contribution to the social progress of forest workers, and this importance is highlighted by the mechanization of logging and other forest work, and the increasing number of permanent forest workers. Many countries have already organized training satisfactorily but in others it is still only in the planning stage.

As was said at the beginning of this paper, social progress in forestry is faced with more and greater obstacles than in most other industries. But this is no excuse for foresters or forestry employers to let forestry remain underdeveloped in this respect. Foresters are responsible for the social progress of forest workers. If they are unable to cope with this, they are not fully competent foresters.

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