One Billion Trees Programme set to become workers rights nightmare

I’ve been following the government’s One Billion Trees Programme since it was proposed in 2016, by co-leader of the Green Party, James Shaw. He pitched the programme as a tactic in mitigating climate change and assured us it would create meaningful, living wage jobs.

At first I was optimistically naive about the scheme. I wanted to believe in Shaw’s lofty words and considerable promises. But as a workers rights advocate and activist that optimism has faded and been replaced by deep concerns. Concerns that include how workers who plant the trees will be treated by agricultural employers and how they will be paid.

First up, the government has subcontracted these jobs out to agricultural employers who are notorious for underpaying workers and exploiting them (I’ve spoken out about this issue many times in the media). I spent most of last year traveling up and down Aotearoa, speaking with rural workers on farms, and picking fruit on orchards, who had horror story after horror story of exploitation, wage theft, and unsafe working conditions. Unless the government ensures labor inspectors check on the workers planting the trees on a weekly basis, these so called ‘amazing’ tree planting jobs will become hotbeds of exploitation — on the governments watch.

Moreover these tree planting jobs have no base rate, instead, workers will be paid at most 00.60cents per tree but the bottom rate sits at around 00.20cents. In other words, these tree planting jobs are piecemeal seasonal work which is great if you are just after a summer or winter gig to tide you over. But horrible if you are desperate for work and this is all you can find. Piecemeal wages are often presented by employers as if workers could maintain absolute peak efficiency over sustained hours. But maintaining peak efficiency isn’t sustainable for any human being. Unless, you happen to have newly acquired superpowers that mean you can relentlessly work in manual labor for 12-hrs solid without food or water.

The government has also offered ‘Direct Landowner Grants’ to farmers and landowners which ‘provide incentives and reduce the barriers to planting trees’. There are two types of grants farmers can apply for and the funds total $238million. But there are no grants offered to potential workers from lesser means who are considering taking tree planting jobs under this scheme. They will have to find the money and the means to upsticks and move to a rural location for 3-4 months without any form of governmental grant or support. When the planting season ends they will either have to scamper and find other low waged seasonal work, or pray they can find accomodation in the middle of a housing crisis and attempt to find a more permanent job in a casualised work economy.  

All of this is massively worrying. But what really kicked my concerns into overdrive was a recent Stuff Media article that ran with this title,

$400 a day to plant trees but no-one wants the job

BULLSHIT. This was misreporting at its finest and showcases exactly what I meant about employers presenting piecemeal work as a great deal while omitting the finer print. I spoke out about the article and why the governments tree planting scheme was going to become a workers rights nightmare. A few days later I was interviewed by a journalist at Stuff, and a new counter article ran:

Here’s why no-one wants to plant trees for $400 a day

I pointed out the following,

“To make the $400 a day you’d have to plant 83 trees an hour over an eight-hour work day, without taking a break, to make this kind of cash. I’ve spoken with seasoned tree-planters who say this would be nearly impossible as the work is back-breaking, especially in rugged terrain and varying temperatures and weather conditions.

They should pay a base living wage and then 30c or 60c per tree on top, I don’t think that’s asking too much.”

I’ve spoken to dozens of people who have worked tree planting jobs who said it would be nearly impossible to make $400 a day on piecemeal wages. One such worker had this to say,

“It would depend on the size of seedling planted and I can’t find that information anywhere. If they’re standard pb3 seedlings then I don’t think it’s possible to do 670 per day. We reckon 300 would be a commendable effort, and that would be back breaking.

And at 60c per tree thats $180, or $18 per hour for a 10 hour day which is my exact situation now without having to move to the sticks for seasonal work.”

Shortly after this article ran I was invited on the a RadioNZ Panel with Michelle Boag, to discuss my reservations over these tree planting jobs:

Too good to be true: why people don’t want seasonal jobs

Many commentators including Boag, believe these jobs are a great deal and that students and people who are unemployed should just take them, and shut up.  

But the reality is the government’s One Billion Trees Programme, seems driven by corporate profit, incentivising land owners, and relying on cheap labor. This is a far cry from what was initially promised; a scheme that would deliver meaningful living wage jobs and mitigate climate change and preserve our environment.  

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