Helsinki (01.06.2001 - Juhani Artto) Until Nokia led an electronics industry boom a few years ago the old saying "Finland lives on its forests", was still commonplace in Finland. Over the decades since the early 19th century, timber, pulp, paper and other wood-based products always had the lion's share of Finnish exports, which in 1999 reached almost EUR 40 billion.
In 1999 forest-based products still accounted for 28.7 per cent of exports, narrowly exceeding the shares of the electronics industry (27.9 per cent) and the engineering sector (25.3 per cent).
At the very beginning of the wood processing production line are the lumberjacks. In the peak winter months of the late 1940s up to 300,000 men worked in the forests felling and transporting trees. In those years the annual average number of forest workers was 140,000.
Nowadays there are only 10,000 workers involved in felling, handling and transporting raw wood material for factories. The figure comprises 4,000 lumberjacks, 2,500 wood handling machine drivers and a few thousand wood transport lorry drivers.
Over the same period as the labour working in the forests has dramatically dropped there has been a clear increase in the volume of felled and transported raw wood material. This rapid fall in the demand for labour has been due to the mechanisation of felling, handling and transportation.
Conflicts between jobs and environmental values
As the figures reveal, the role of forest work as an employment sector has fallen from huge to marginal. Nowadays its employment-providing capacity remains crucial only in certain areas of Northern and Eastern Finland where other industries do not offer employment alternatives that are as extensive as in other parts of Finland.
Over the last few years the employment aspect of forest work has become a public issue only when environmentalists have sought to impede wood-cutting. Bitter conflicts have arisen mainly in the areas known as old growth forests, where environmentalists have fought for the survival of rare and endangered species, while forest workers have been concerned for their jobs and livelihood.
At the Wood and Allied Workers' Union* Sakari Lepola, the head of the collective bargaining department, would like to cool down the sometimes heated disputes that arise, with environmental activists even chaining themselves to the wood handling machines to prevent the wood cutting from beginning or continuing.
Lepola, 45, a former lumberjack himself, briefly outlines the evolution of environmental disputes in the Finnish forests. In his early days as a forest worker the main environmental issue was to prevent machine oil from leaking into the environment and damaging water supplies. Even before this there was some criticism of the clear felling of forest areas covering tens or sometimes hundreds of acres.
In the late 1970s a dispute began concerning the herbicides used to kill unproductive plants. These herbicides were cost-effective in their main function, but were hazardous both to workers and to a great many forest species. This put the union and environmental activists on the same side of the barricades at that time.
Protected forests and certification issues
In the 1980s a struggle arose over a large forest area at Kessi in Northern Finland. The environmentalists wanted to let the area remain an untouched wilderness, but local people viewed logging in Kessi as a vital source of employment and income. Since then several similar conflicts have taken place in Northern and Eastern Finland.
Lepola wants to emphasise that forest workers have always been well aware of natural values. Conflicts arise when the cost-effectiveness values of the forest industry demand heavy, machine-operated raw materials handling in the forests.
The era of conflict is not yet over, and they are bound to crop up every now and then because most of the endangered species in Finland live in the forests. Certification projects have not eliminated these contradictions as the industry and forest owners have supported standards differing from those of the environmentalists.
The Wood and Allied Workers' Union regards the FFCS certification scheme approved by hundreds of thousands of Finnish forest owners as sufficient to implement the principles of sustainable forestry.
However, Lepola admits that if no species at all are allowed to vanish, then forest work and the industry will definitely be in for trouble. "While Finland fares well by international standards, on closer inspection the biodiversity problem is unsolved in Finland, too."
Lepola sounds rather frustrated when describing the tactics used by environmentalists. "Whenever a forest dispute has been solved by protecting the area, it has never been long before a new struggle has been started by the environmentalists somewhere else."
Too rapid rate of mechanisation
Lepola still directs his main criticism at the high rate of mechanisation of forest work. "It has gone too far", he says. "If the use of labour were better planned, then both the forest economy and ecology would win."
"The Wood and Allied Workers' Union does not approve of the idea of viewing the forests only as raw material sources for industry. A gentler approach in forestry means both greater demand for skilled labour and more differentiated treatment of the environment."
Lepola has another worry concerning the pay of forest workers. "In the face of demographic changes industry is already talking about the threat of a labour shortage. Insofar as industry is willing to pay workers decent wages, there will be no labour shortage. The biodiversity challenge also highlights the pay issue, as it can be properly addressed only by using skilled labour."
As an alternative, some industrial interests have hinted at importing forest workers from Russia, Poland and the Baltic countries. Lepola rejects this option outright, as there are still plenty of unemployed forest workers in Finland. Lepola sees the proposals for labour imports mainly as an effort to reduce labour costs in logging.
The average monthly income of Finnish forest workers remains below FIM 10,000 (FIM 1.00 = EUR 0.17). In industries using mainly male labour the average pay level is higher. Part of the problem lies in the concentration of the purchasing side for raw wood material. Three multinational enterprises based in Finland - Stora Enso, UPM-Kymmene and M-Real (former Metsä-Serla) - rule the scene. This concentration enables pressure to be exerted to lower the industry's input costs.
A further potential, environmentally-related threat overshadows the jobs of lumberjacks, as also jobs in other wood processing industries. In some cases environmental disputes have grown to international dimensions as Finnish environmental groups have invited German, British and other foreign environmentalists to support their ongoing action in Finland. The idea has been to encourage the foreign customers of Finland's forest industry to put pressure on Finnish producers to adopt gentler methods of forestry.
It is probable that the stronger emphasis on biodiversity in the forestry of major Finnish industry in the late 1990s was partly due to international pressure created by the environmentalists.
The Wood and Allied Workers' Union has had another kind of role on the international scene. For many years it has co-financed a project in Malaysia seeking to improve the social and economic status of wood industry workers in the State of Sabah, and to ensure that their human and trade union rights are respected. The objective is to empower the workers' own organisation, the Sabah Forest Industries Employees' Union - SFIEU. The project is being implemented in association with the SFIEU by training study circle leaders and arranging regular study circle work.
*The Wood and Allied Workers' Union was founded in 1899 and currently has some 50,000 members. Most of its members work in sawmills and in the board, plywood, veneer and furniture industry. The union's next Congress will be held from June 15 to 17, 2001.
Go to http://www.puuliitto.fi/en for the English language section of the union's website to read:
- Sakari Lepola's speech on Finnish forest certification at an international union seminar held in Poland in March 2001,
- Sakari Lepola's statement in February on a recent dispute in Northern Finland where action by environmentalists led to the closure of a sawmill, with the attendant impact on the livelihood of local people, and
- basic details of the Wood and Allied Workers' Union in Finland.