Duncan Garner: The personal face of our national shame

29/11/2013

By Duncan Garner, RadioLIVE Drive host  

Charles Finlay’s ordinary family life came to a tragic end at 5am on July 19 this year.

On a cold morning, in a dark forest a massive splint of wood weighing more than 50 kilos broke from a log and shot through the air. It struck him in the head and killed him.

They tried to resuscitate him; they failed. The ambulance took 30 minutes to get into the forest.

This week I spoke to his widow Maryanne.

Charles was the 28th man to die in our forests since 2008. Our 29th victim, 63 year-old David Beamsley died in the same forest this week. Our 30th victim, a 28 year old man, died today.

All up, 69 men have died since the year 2000.

Charles Finlay had worked in the forests for 27 years. He worked for M & A Cross which is contracted to Hancock Forest Management – which is based in Boston. It runs forest portfolios for public and corporate pension plans for wealthy people and large foundations. As of earlier this year its global assets were valued at $11.5billion.

But Charles earned just $16 an hour despite being enormously experienced, and remember he had done 27 years on the forest floor.

Charles had a bloody hard job; he was gone out of the house most days at 3.30am and would return as late as 7pm some nights. He loved his kids – twin girls of school age – Shelby and Sharneica, but some weeks he had to work the weekends. The owners and the contractors above him would really pile the pressure on – with some pretty unrealistic demands. He never once got a bonus – not that his wife can remember.

The Government is slowly waking up to the health and safety problems in our forests. The thing is: The rules state that the industry must get their own house in order. That’s how de-regulation works in NZ: It’s up to industry to make their workplace safe.

As one forest owner and timber processor Bernie Lagan told me this week – some consider health and safety as ‘bullshit and bureaucracy’ – it’s someone else’s job. It’s true, he told me, that the good companies take that seriously. The bad guys, unfortunately don’t.

He told me he pays his blokes $25-35 an hour. He said if you’re paying your blokes $16 an hour after 27 years, something is not right.

And the problem is not just in our forests: On farms – our people are dying too.

Over 13 years, 195 workers have died on our farms. In construction, it’s 117 dead since 2000. It’s all dangerous work, but I’m focusing on forestry.

The industry this week accepted something must be done. The Government has issued 180 enforcement notices on contractors in recent times. It’s closed down 14 operations out of 150 in its recent sting. But 180 contractors are yet to get a visit from the inspectors. This tells us something is wrong.

We are working in steeper forests than ever before, I am told. So that means safety is more paramount now, than ever before. The cowboy operators must be weeded out; the bad operators closed down. We need more inspectors – and they need more powers. Or they must, at least, use the ones they have more often. They need to become ruthless and uncompromising.

They allowed Pike River to continue when they had the power to close it down. Labour promises a corporate manslaughter law. That might scare the bosses, but probably not the American pension funds who remain at arm’s length.

But good men like Charles Finlay should not be allowed to continue to die. Change is coming – but it’s slow. The attitudes need to change.

The good family men, and their sons who follow them into the bush must not be allowed to die. Simon Bridges has a responsibility to change the industry, but the industry must be willing to change too. That change appears to be happening – but only in some quarters.

The dinosaurs and cowboys must go. They must be closed down. They should only be allowed to operate again if they can prove they are up to it.

Profit is good, I’m not anti-business or anti-profit – I understand how the world goes round – but it must not be put before, and at the expense of men like Charles Finlay – and his wife and his twins. They have been left behind to suffer in silence. Just like the family of the young man who died in Nelson today. Their tough times are about to begin.

Something has to change.

source: data archive