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Mud, Sweat and Tears: The Gruelling Life of a Tree Planter

The work is backbreaking, but wages are sinking.

Jonathon Hernandez 8 May

Jonathon Hernandez is completing a practicum at The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter @jonvhernandez.

When Jonathan "Scooter" Clark began planting trees for a living in 1990, his work camp was "bush league" at best. By comparison, the modern-day tree planters seem like a spoiled bunch. "We had two station wagons in our first camp, and a couple of two-wheel-drive trucks," said Clark, 46, who works in a camp that today uses all-terrain vehicles, four-wheel-drive trucks, and even helicopters.

"When I started, first aid was rudimentary," he continued. "We had no such thing as dry tents." As most tree planters can attest, a dry tent is both a refuge and a stink shack: a communal place where planters can hang their wet and dirty clothes to dry after a day spent working in the rain and mud. In the new age of tree planting, the thought of not having one in camp is just cruel.

"Over 20 years, I think camps have gotten a lot better, the industry has gotten a lot safer. A lot more money has gone to comfort," added the 25-year veteran.

Since 1990, Clark has seen camp standards evolve as he worked his way up the ranks -- moving from a lowly tree planter to the authoritative camp supervisor. He's now the boss of a 58-person camp filled with a mix of crusty veterans and green rookies under Folklore Contracting, a tree planting company based out of Prince George, B.C.

But not all the changes have been for the better. Since the early 2000s, tree planting wages in B.C. have dropped substantially. The reasons are varied, including lower tree prices offered by contracts, declining worker productivity, and inflation.

Fifteen years ago, seasonal tree planters in B.C. could make an average of $300 a day or more. Those wages attracted workers to return year after year.

But the new generation of tree planter isn't earning that kind of money.

According to the most recent Labour Market Index, three-quarters of planters across the province earned $16 per hour or less during the 2014 planting season, while only 10 per cent of tree planters drew the high earnings of their predecessors.

The same data indicates that last year, there were some instances where silviculture field workers earned less than minimum wage. On their worst pay period, 87 per cent of workers report earnings below B.C.'s minimum wage.*

Workers must also pay for their own food and accommodation.

Clark remembers when tree planting was a job where students could work for three months and pay for a year's worth of tuition. But now, he has trouble recommending the profession to newcomers. At camps, he's noticed that planters don't spend as freely as they once did.

"I see a lot of planters in my own camp that ask if they can stay in camp [instead of going into town] on the day off. They'll hang out, they'll sleep, they'll do laundry in the creek, and they'll eat leftovers [to save money]," said Clark.

"The real problem is inflation. The wages just haven't adjusted," he said.

"Nowadays, a lot of students are staying in the cities," Clark said. "You can get a serving or bartending job and make equal or lesser money than you can tree planting."

Poorly paid piecework

Tree planters aren't paid an hourly wage. It's one of the few jobs that is still piecework. Workers earn a set price for every tree they plant.

The work is gruelling -- a BBC documentary cited tree planting as one of the world's toughest jobs. On an average day, workers plant about 2,000 trees. In the past, the relative high pay was a fair compensation for the backbreaking work.

One organization that is tracking pay rates is the Western Silvicultural Contractors Association (WSCA), a B.C.-based organization focused on forest management.

Statistics compiled by the group in 2013 show a 30 per cent decrease in wages since 2000, and a near 50 per cent drop when adjusted for inflation.

"Starting in the early 2000s, [wages have] proceeded to go down. If you add in inflation, it's substantially lower," said John Betts, executive director of the organization. "The effect is that, with inflation, it appears the average rate paid to workers has been in a steep decline and it's dropped substantially."

One major contributor is the low-bid auction system that favours getting the work done for the lowest costs.

Every tree that is chopped down in B.C. needs to be replaced by law, and the provincial government does much of the cutting. The B.C. Timber Sales program harvests and sells a fair chunk of the provincial wood supply, and each year, alongside private loggers, it contracts tree-planting companies to reforest parts of the province. Companies compete and bid for each contract, and most often the lowest bidder -- offering the best deal -- wins.

Competitive bidding has driven tree prices down over the years, much to the surprise of the B.C. government.

"We've been expecting the bid prices to go up, given that people talk about a shortage of supply and not having workers," said Robert Bigalke, associate director of business management for B.C. Timber Sales. "But that's not what we've seen in practice."

Ultimately, what drives prices down is competition between planting companies looking to secure work, Bigalke noted. "The earlier in the year that companies or people like us are advertising, the bids tend to get lower because the contractors want to guarantee work."

The lower wages have dissuaded experienced workers, meaning there are more novices entering the field. They, in turn, are less productive and earn less than their more experienced counterparts.

"There's some somewhat startling figures that seems to suggest that people are not earning that great a wage, compared to other resource sector rates, when you start adding up a 10-hour work day, factor in camp costs, providing their own tents and transportation," said WSCA's Betts. "A lot of workers are actually making the very bottom end of the resource pay scale."

Planters win suit

Private logging companies are responsible for most of the reforesting that is done in B.C., but in the past it was the province that made headlines for awarding contracts to the lowest bidder.

The system boiled over in 2008 when the Surrey-based Khaira Enterprises was awarded a government-planting contract for Golden, B.C. It was discovered that the company was cutting costs by not paying its workers -- and keeping them in deplorable, "slave-like" living conditions. The exploited workers won a B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ruling, and the B.C. government responded by paying closer attention to their bidders.

"Khaira is a perfect example of best price, but terrible value," said Tony Harrison, co-founder to the B.C. tree-planting company, Zanzibar Holdings.

Harrison said there is a difference between achieving the best price for a tree-planting contract and getting the best value. Best price means getting the work done for the smallest amount of money. The best value means investing a little more to get the job done better -- and workers are properly paid.

"Best value often is paying someone a reasonable wage to give you a good job so you don't have to redo it at a later date," added Harrison. "At times, that's a lesson that has to be relearned."

Harrison is also a member of the WSCA, alongside Betts. The organization has worked closely with the B.C. government, voicing its concerns about the industry's gloomy trends.

Recently, the group entered consultations with the government to initiate longer-term contracts between the province and planting companies. It's believed that longer contracts will provide more stability and improve efficiency; perhaps allowing planting companies to offer workers a higher tree price.

"There is a push to offer more three-to-five year renewable contracts," said Harrison. "That goes a long way to enable a client to get best value. I'm doing the pre-work right now for a multi-year deal [between Zanzibar and the BCTS]. You get to get your people familiar with the areas, and that plays into wages."

But with current market trends, there are no promises that the government will be willing to engage in more multi-year contracts. British Columbia's forestry industry has sustained damage in the last decade from over-harvesting and the pine beetle, which has prompted the government to limit the amount of logging permitted each year.

The decreased annual allowable cut will hit tree planters as well. Next year, there will be roughly 18 per cent fewer tree-planting opportunities in the province, bringing the workforce down to 3,609 from 4,387.

By 2025, the workforce is expected to drop further to 2,887. With less work available for planting companies, it is expected that bidding will become even more competitive.

"Right now we're riding high numbers of reforestation, and the forecast is for that to collapse. When you see the decrease in demand, its going to further increase what is already a highly competitive industry," said Betts.

*Correction May 8 at 8:45 a.m. Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated B.C.'s minimum wage.  [Tyee]

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