What is an independent contractor in these days of increasing forest company consolidation?

Last week I spoke to Vernon Martin one of the four brothers of Joe Martin & Sons Ltd. The firm is well known in the Prince George area where it has worked for the last 30 years and has been a mainstay of the logging and roadbuilding community. The firm is also well known because it just went out of business last fall and in the process laid off more than 100 employees in the region.

I have appended to this article Joe Martin & Sons Ltd.¹s open letter to its employees, subcontractors, and the general community published last November when the firm annouced it was quitting and selling its assets. Many of the points raised in the letter reflect comments I hear increasingly these days in silvicultural contracting quarters.

In our conversation Vernon said he was still working, sort of, but not in the woods. Instead he is busy in the panelled offices of arbitration lawyers and company negotiators trying to settle payment under what he saw as the unequal terms of Bill 13¹s replaceable volume provisions. Basically, it was his company¹s inability to get fair treatment from his forest company clients that drove his firm out of business he said. He makes this point with some force in the letter.

The specifics of Joe Martin & Sons Ltd¹s fate may seem a long ways from the silvicultural contracting industry. But you would have to be blind to not see how many of the same themes are at play in both our situations. Only, they are playing out a little differently, so far.

³These days we are not independent contractors any more. We are dependent contractors,² said Vernon referring to the increasing consolidation in the forest sector.

More than one silvicultural contractor has talked to me about his vulnerability to the increasing advantage the larger forest company clients enjoy as they gain more leverage over the work offered. One can draw their own conclusions from the comments in Vernon¹s letter as to just how far things might deteriorate in our relationships with forest companies.

Obviously our clients are in the business of gaining efficiencies through contractors. That is the reason we are in the business and its one of the fundamentals of free enterprise. The fair exchange of these efficiencies produces benefits for both sides.

However, that balance perishes in a monopoly. Soon the side with the advantage is going to use it. And that¹s what Vernon says is happening in this province.

At a public meeting in Prince George recently someone stood up and put things bluntly about corporate bullying that goes farther than just how contractors get treated by the big forest companies. ³These large firms, in the name of shareholder value, will suck the equity and life blood out of every resource community in this province,² said the commentator. Its a depressing thought, but a reality as far as Joe Martin & Sons Ltd. is concerned.