At the beginning of October, the Regroupement des Travailleuses et Travailleurs Sylvicoles du Quebec launched a class action suit against forestry monopolies over working conditions that are unsafe and even fall below the minimum standards prescribed by law.
The forestry companies targeted by the lawsuit are Domtar, Abitibi Consolidated, Tembec, Norbord and Outland Reforestation.
Silviculture workers work in reforestation and forest management. There are some 10,000 in Quebec doing work such as tree planting and brush cutting. Although the Quebec government says these workers are doing important work to regenerate the forests, they are by far the lowest paid of the forestry workers and face some of the worst working conditions.
The president of the Regroupement, Jean-Baptiste Mailloux, told TML that the class action suit was launched on behalf of 1,800 brush cutters. “We have been preparing ourselves for this for over six years. The Regroupement des Travailleuses et Travailleurs Sylvicoles du Quebec is a defence organization of the silviculture workers. The abuse of power against these workers is unbelievable,” he said. “It also makes the task of organizing them very difficult because the turnaround is so high due to the very bad working conditions. It is very difficult to unionize these workers because as soon as they unionize, the big forestry companies stop giving work to the contractors employing them.”
“I am confident that we have mounted a solid legal case and that we are going to raise the awareness of the people about our situation. The legal action is made on behalf of 1,800 brush cutters, but we want to extend it eventually to the tree planters and the lumberjacks doing silviculture,” Mailloux said.
The lawsuit was launched against the forestry monopolies because under the Quebec Forest Act they are responsible for the management and regeneration of Quebec’s forests. These monopolies subcontract the whole sector to the lowest bidder.
In their legal action, the silviculture workers argue that the working conditions imposed on them are below the minimum standards prescribed by the labour laws in Quebec including the laws on health and safety.
“The law governing health and safety at work clearly prescribes that it is the duty of the employers to provide and pay for all the safety equipment of the workers,” Mailloux said. “You are not even supposed to start working without having the necessary equipment, paid in full by the employers, but this is not what is happening. In the case of brush cutters, we need hats, glasses and boots. More often than not, the employer will tell the worker that it is up to the worker to buy the safety equipment and that he will be refunded if he works long enough for the same contractor. This is illegal and, besides, this equipment is very costly for us considering that our wages are extremely low.”
Another issue covered by the lawsuit is the fact that most of the silviculture workers actually work for less than minimum wage. “The minimum wage in Quebec is now at $7.60. Now, all our work is piece work. If we consider the hours that we put at work and what we get in wages, most of our people are well below the minimum wage. In addition, we have to pay for everything. We often pay for our safety equipment, then for our machinery and the fuel it needs, for our travelling expenses, for our rain coats and so on. At the end of the day, there is almost nothing left,” Mailloux said.
The silviculture workers also argue that the forestry monopolies violate the minimum employment standards concerning meals and accommodation. “Most of our workers eat and sleep in facilities provided by the employer as it would make no sense to travel back and forth every day for such long distances. The law says that the employer cannot charge more than $40 plus tax a week for meals and sleeping accommodations but we often pay much more than that and the money is deducted directly from our pay cheques.”
Mailloux pointed out that the working conditions of the silviculture have to be changed drastically and that the blame for the current state of affairs has to be put squarely on the forestry monopolies and the government.
“This kind of job is a last resort for those who have nowhere to go and there is total abuse. The employers tell us bluntly that this is a job of last resort and with no recourse. It is in silviculture that we find the new immigrants or people who have gone through bankruptcies. We even have university teachers or doctors who started a small business, went bankrupt, and now they are in the forest with their saw doing this work under deplorable conditions.
“One of the main problems we have is that this is a highly political file. Nobody in government or in government agencies wants to touch it because they know that the big forestry companies do not want to put any money into it. It is a joke when we hear that the future for the laid off sawmill or pulp and paper workers is to go into silviculture.”