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 But as a workers rights advocate and activist that optimism has faded and been replaced by deep concerns.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.  

Climate change is without question a defining crisis but so is compassion

I was surfing through radio stations on my cellphone a couple of weeks ago while sitting on the bus and I heard the words “climate change refugee.” I stopped on the station from which these words rang out which unfortunately happened to be radio talkback station NewsTalkZB.

Yeah, I know: why on Earth I did not change the station as quickly as possible–simply as a measure of self-preservation–is beyond me. I knew what I would hear: a lot of people ringing in to rant with NewsTalkZB host Danny Watson, who I quite soon enough would find out is not fond of recognizing his own cognitive dissidence, talking about a deeply complicated and human crisis from a point of ignorance and xenophobia.

I was not disappointed.

The first caller swept the defining issue of climate change aside, suggesting that human induced climate chaos will not affect anyone in our lifetimes. In other words: this caller believed anyone claiming climate change refugee status is full of shit. The caller was responding to the case of Ioane and Erika Teitiota and their children, who have been living in Aotearoa since 2007 and applied for climate change refugee status in 2011. Teitiota and his family were recently denied this refugee status by our New Zealand supreme court. Ioane was deported back to his homeland of Kiribati on the 23rd of September and Erika and his children followed a week later.

The caller declared that “the climate change refugee needs to be sent back [home].” Not once did this caller who had phoned in to speak with Danny use Ioane’s name, preferring instead to refer to him as “that climate change refugee” or “the climate change refugee.” This was an act of dehumanisation. It is easier to condemn people to suffering and hardship when we do not know their names or their stories.

I kept listening while others called in to name Ioane and his family as “overstayers” echoing the position of our current colonial National PM John Key. Journalist Morgan Godfery in a recent email to me, wrote:

“The indication from Key was pretty clear: he labelled them “overstayers” (the rhetoric is uncomfortably close to the days of the dawn raids and the stigmatising of Pacific peoples).“

Not once did Danny challenge any callers on their prejudice or stigmatising language and I am not sure why I thought he might. I guess hope makes me more optimistic than I should be at times.

I decided to call into RadioZB for the first time ever and tell Danny and his listeners (who I swear are all old white dudes) the serious consequences and hardships that Erika, Ioane, and their children will face once deported to Kiribati. I know, it was a futile mission if ever there was one. I got on air with Danny and attempted to explain to him why the Teitiota’s should have been given climate change status. Paraphrasing from memory, I said:

In Island nations such as Kiribati which is the lowest lying country in the Pacific, ocean creep is destroying Kiribati’s groundwater supplies; the IPCC has predicted Kiribati will be devoured by rising oceans in our lifetime. In Aotearoa we have a responsibility to our Pacific neighbours to offer them climate change refugee status, and Kiribati is becoming uninhabitable. As the ocean rises, smashing over storm barriers, there is less and less land to live on so people are being forced, increasingly, into smaller and smaller living quarters. Poverty rates have exploded on Kiribati. This is no place to raise a family.

Danny disagreed, to say the least. He accused me of hyperbole and stretching the truth, telling me: “You will never win friends and influence people with that rhetoric.” If the types of friends I’d win by using a different “rhetoric” to the language of compassion I use in response to climate refugees would be people like Danny, I think I’d rather be a Nancy No Mates, thanks.

Danny even suggested we build a “climate change refugee camp” for people like the Teitiota’s. Interestingly, just last week climate activists from all over the Pacific staged a direct action outside of ANZ’s flagship bank on Queen Street, Auckland, assembling and then occupying a “future climate refugee camp.” As Pacific Scoop reported,

“The camp represented a future that the people of the Pacific are fighting hard to avoid. It aimed to highlight ANZ’s complicity in the climate crisis that puts all Pacific Island nations at risk, and to urge ANZ to divest from fossil fuels.



Pelenise Alofa of the Kiribati Climate Action Network demonstrates in front of the Queen Street branch of ANZ Bank. Photo / Alexandra Wimley


The very suggestion of a “refugee camp” as a solution for Pacific people who have been made homeless by the effects of climate change is exactly what many Pacific peoples are trying to avoid. But hey as always white dude commentator knows what’s best for indigenous people?

Danny even tried to qualify his stance on climate refugees by saying he had family/friends in Bali so they could claim “climate change refugee status because in 50 years a volcano might blow.”  This left me gobsmacked, mainly at Danny’s continued insistence on his sense of entitlement to an opinion defined by ignorance and his heartlessness.  

Unfortunately Danny’s very public views are not some aberration; his opinions on climate change are not in the minority in this country. Even as sea-levels continue to rise as the Arctic melts because the planet is warming and the dominant cause is greenhouse gas emissions, the NZ Herald reported that New Zealanders have some of the highest rates of skepticism over global warming in the world. Skeptic or not you cannot negate the mounting scientific evidence that climate change is without question the defining crisis of our life-time, but what also I learnt from Danny and his old white dude callers–other than calling ZB is a really bad idea if you want to disagree with the conservative host–is this: the lack of compassion within modern New Zealand society is also a critical issue; levels of compassion within our society seem already to be in crisis mode.  

It is important to note I started writing this political essay before the news came to light that Ioane had been served with an assault warning for pushing a female employer at his work place last year. Other employers have also come forward to report assaults by Ioane as OneNews stated last week. This assault warning was taken into consideration in relation to Ioane’s case for climate change refugee status as 3News pointed out. I have been assaulted and endlessly felt up by men at different workplaces as I work in the low-waged service industry; abuse is a daily threat I face and it is both scary and humiliating, and while it is obvious to say it should always be taken seriously by both employer and the police, they hardly ever do.

So, I ask: since when does National care about assaults against women, especially those in the workplace? Since before it slashed funding to rape crisis, or after? Since it cut all funding to the “It’s not OK!” campaign? Since John Key himself, over several months, harassed a young waitress at his local café and over and over again put his hands on her self without permission? Yeah, about that:

I guess gender-based violence and harassment of women is only taken seriously by John Key if he isn’t the one doing it, and if it serves his right-wing agenda. In this case John’s pathetic, desperate, scrabbling anti-refugee position and as Kanoa Lloyd pointed out on 3New’s “Newsworthy” if the man who perpetrated violence directed at a woman is a person of colour.  All that is actually happening here is another classic case of formalizing institutional racism.

If suddenly the National party cares so deeply about the welfare of vulnerable women why then wasn’t special consideration taken for Erika and her children? Why must they suffer for someone else’s actions? It is well established that it is women and children who are being disproportionately affected by climate change. However, the National government says nothing about this; no, not a fucking whisper. The ongoing hypocrisy of this government is breathtaking.

Journalist Taberannang Korauaba, indigenous to Kiribati, wrote for Pacific Scoop, “[Ioane] personally has no difficulty going back to Kiribati because he worked here and he can cope with life on the islands.” But there are fears for the welfare of his family once they are deported. Morgan Godfery explains these fears are not imagined; rather, they are more than real. In the NZ Herald he writes,

“If the Teitiota children are deported to Kiribati they will have to adjust to a new culture, a new environment, and even build up immunities to new diseases. They will most likely live on Tarawa, the main island, where dead bodies contaminate the freshwater lens, population density spreads disease, and ocean creep is poisoning breadfruit trees and taro plantations.”

While many living on Kiribati have labelled Ioane a “traitor” for speaking out about the conditions of the pacific nation and have accused him of “misrepresenting Kiribati” and wounding national pride as Public Address reported, there is, however, mounting evidence that Kiribati is becoming uninhabitable. This is a situation rapidly being compounded by the worst-case scenario effects of the onset of abrupt, catastrophic climate change. In his piece entitled “Exile By Another Name,” on Ioane’s plea for climate change status, investigative journalist Kenneth R. Weiss writes,

“since this case has come to light, Tarawa residents have been alarmed that 2,400 children fell ill and nine children died after picking up a rotavirus likely from sewage-contaminated water […] Other infectious diseases are taking advantage of the crowding in this island nation’s shanty towns. Tuberculosis is on the upswing. Leprosy is spreading.”

As ocean levels rise around Kiribati, those living on the islands are being forced into smaller and smaller living quarters; it is common knowledge that condensed populations can become the source for outbreaks of disease. Already on Tarawa there are 50,000 people packed into overcrowded shanty towns, and this is where Erika and her children, now, must live. As rising oceans continue to devour Kiribati, these deeply problematic and life-threatening issues are likely only to worsen.

People like Danny and other global warming skeptics believe they will not live to see the true and absolute devastation of abrupt climate change in their lifetimes, or, they at least make a “choice” not to acknowledge it. Why should he or others care about our responsibility to protect Papatūānuku or care for the welfare of those who will bear the brunt of human induced climate chaos? After all he thinks that the metaphorical volcano of climate change ain’t gonna blow for at least another 50 years, give or take.

But, it is exactly this kind of irresponsible and compassion-bereft attitude–that states climate change is somehow a non-issue and a problem for our next generations to deal with, held by Danny and our politicians such as John Key–that has, in part, led to so much widespread national inaction over such a defining and earth shattering issue.


If you would like to know more about the impacts of climate change here is an event my friend Cam Walker has helped to organise in Auckland:  

Auckland meeting: In the Eye of the Storm: Disaster Politics and Climate Change In the Philippines

You can  follow Chloe King on twitter