Sunday 28th April was Workers Memorial Day and in Auckland I attended the event that was organised by the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions to remember the people in the last year that went to work and never came back.
This year’s event highlighted the appalling health and safety record of the forestry industry. While the workers in this industry are highly skilled and frequently well trained the pressure to work harder and faster has resulted in four deaths since the beginning of the year. In the last four years there have been over 900 serious accidents and 26 deaths in our forests.
The loved ones of six of those workers spoke to the 150 or so people gathered in Auckland for the Memorial event. They spoke about the pressures their loved ones were under before their deaths; they talked about the concerns these men had already raised about the terrain and weather they were working in; and they also talked about how the forestry industry had frequently tried to blame the victims themselves or attempted to minimise the seriousness of the health and safety risks these workers faced – and their colleagues face – every day.
Despite the tears – and there were many – these families were determined to tell the stories about how their loved ones had died in an effort to stop other needless deaths. Ken Callow’s family are also fronting a CTU-lead public campaign about forestry deaths which includes a petition and a call for an inquiry into the forestry sector.
Most foresters are contractors working long hours, frequently trying to meet unrealistic deadlines and quotas set by the forest owners. But the forest owners are never ever held to account about the accidents that happen.
And to add insult to injury on Friday the government announced a host of changes to the employment relations law that will result in workers having even less say in their workplaces. Many of the proposed changes attack union rights and collective bargaining and many unions have expressed their concern about how wages and conditions will be eroded.
Unionised workforces have safer working conditions and better pay rates because workers are free to participate in dialogue with their employers about health and safety and negotiations around their wages and conditions. The National Government changes are simply a mechanism to further reduce union rights and it puts workers at risk.
The slogan for Workers Memorial Day is “Mourn for the Dead and Fight for the Living.” – The Greens are backing the call for an inquiry into the forestry sector. Now is the time to fight for the living.