Forest Certification: A Tool for Workers’ Rights

24 September 2018 07:47












This is the first of a series of blog pieces written by the Ambet Yuson, General Secretary of BWI on issues impacting workers in the BWI sectors and the global trade union movement.

Who knew that at the 2001 IFBWW (one of the predecessor organizations of BWI). World Congress held in Copenhagen that a Resolution adopted by the World Body directing members and the global federation to fight for forest certification, that the struggle would evolve into a fight to save the planet itself from the ravages of neo-liberalism. Four years later, Sir Nicholas Stern labeled climate change the result of the greatest market failure the world has ever seen.

A decade and a half later, we now know that the majority of climate models are wrong. They have dramatically underestimated the consequences of Greenhouse gases and human induced climate change. Workers and their families are paying the price for unsustainable development every day: from droughts in Africa to floods in Asia to hurricanes in the Americas.

While the number of hectares certified by all 3rd party forest systems continues to rise so does deforestation. All too often discussions about Sustainable Forest Management exclude workers in our sectors who do the work and live in the forests.

They have been many victories since Copenhagen, 2001. PEFC has codified the ILO core labour standards into their forest management standard and is now extending those protections for all countries, regardless of national law, into their chain of custody standard. FSC has codified the core labour standards into their forest management plan and have rejected union resolutions to include them in their Chain of Custody (COC) on numerous occasions.

Forest certification as one tool to enforce decent work has been effective in some places and less so in others. In Malaysia, forestry workers on the mainland have another tool in their fight for social justice. Likewise, employers covered by certification certificates provide workers in our sectors with additional avenues for dialogue and direct action.

Looking back on Copenhagen some would say we have come further then we have expected. All would agree we have not traveled far enough.

A frustrating yet still an opportunity to advance social justice is the issue of climate change and how forests and forest products provide potential solutions and risks.

At the Paris Accords, the Global Unions were unable to get a commitment to a socially just transition. As a result, we see increases in climate refugees and wholesale destruction of workers’ communities from extreme weather events. The increase in refugees is being ruthlessly exploited by neo-liberal and right-wing politicians and political parties to support the closing of national borders and turning backs against migrants and refugees in need. The success of this political strategy does not bode well for the sacrifices that must be made by all if we are to mitigate even the less harsh outcomes from climate change.

For the homo sapiens to survive, forests must survive. For forests to survive forest dependent workers must thrive. To date, forest certification has been an early adopter of this principle into their various standards and structures. While government waste decades and millions upon millions of dollars seeking “legality” agreements from nations without the wherewithal to enforce them, forest certification has protected forests and workers to a higher degree than the majority of non-certified forests.

The question perhaps at the root of the sustainability question in market driven economies is how can the wealth of the forest be kept in the forest dependent community while still providing the world with a supply of lower carbon building materials?

Forest management based on need is a very different approach than forest management for profit.

The recent rise of conservative governments today threatens the forest in Brazil, the United States, and other countries where the government has declared itself “open for business” as if workers, given the choice would destroy a forest today rather than give our children an opportunity to thrive tomorrow.

The tasks ahead are little different then the tasks we have already achieved. We must continue to build global solidarity among workers in the BWI sectors so that construction, wood and forestry workers in Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden understand the needs of forest workers in Indonesia, Ghana, and Chile. We must respect the choices made by our colleagues, even if they are not the choices we might make, given our different situations.

There is not one single way to save the world’s forests. Global big box retailers dictating to small family farmers will not create sustainable forest management. OECD governments having deforested their own lands cannot today determine how high forest cover countries manage these precious natural resources. What we can do, what we have done to create our most victorious outcomes has been to listen to each other, develop a framework agreed to by all workers and then move forward with one unified voice.

The foundation of such a framework is very recognizable. Work must be a safe place. It must pay enough so that workers can be as sustainable as the forests including through their retirement. If buying the cheapest wood product in Europe or the United States condemns wood and forestry. workers in Asia, Africa, or Latin America to poverty the product is not sustainable. One cannot manufacture a board in the world’s most dangerous sawmill, even if sourced from the best managed forests in the world and label it “sustainable”. It is not.

Workers must have the right without interference from governments or from employers to form and join trade unions of their own choosing. We must be able to bargain without fear of losing our jobs or being replaced. Today as much as the day the International Labour Organization (ILO) was formed this is true.

The forces that lead to the creation of the ILO are alive again. The world is dividing into the haves and the have nots. This division is within countries just as well as between them. We need to overcome this division and work together to fight for social justice, which includes income and wealth equality, safe and decent work, strong unions, and healthy forests.

Forest certification can continue to be an early adopter and move on to strengthen their social standards or can abandon them, allow them to stagnate and condemn themselves to the dustbin of history.

Workers in the BWI sectors as they have always been, stand ready to partner when offered, or fight when needed to make this dream a reality.