Thursday, 11 July 2019

Forestry worker dies

A contract forestry worker Lesley Whitfield, aged 42, died on 28 November 2018, in an incident involving a quad bike in forestry near Castle Douglas. 

The tragedy occurred little over a year since Unite Forestry Commission lead rep Neil Grieve expressed concern in the Landworker summer 2017 edition that in Scotland: “Private companies are doing some of the harvesting, road repairs and replanting. This could reduce the direct workplace and we are aware that, just like in Wales, the employees are not enjoying decent terms and conditions. 

“They are being exploited by being employed on zero-hours contracts. For the first time in my 30 year career I have seen planting contractors who are living in tents in the forests.”

Asked to comment on whether Neil’s fear had now been confirmed, Forest Enterprise Scotland, which is responsible for managing the National Forest Estate in Scotland, and the HSE both said that whilst investigations, for which Police Scotland have primacy, were ongoing they could not comment. A FES spokesperson said they “would like to offer our deepest condolences to the family and friends at this difficult time.” 

The police will conduct a post-post-mortem examination and submit a report to the Procurator Fiscal, which is responsible for the prosecution of crime in Scotland.  

Lesley Whitfield’s death was the latest in a long list of 2018/19 countryside fatalities, which totalled 15 in the agricultural sector by 24 September 2018. This was just under a quarter of the overall total of 61, 16 of which were in Scotland. Of the 15, a third were employees and of the remaining ten that were classed as self employed the majority were working for someone else when they lost their lives. A third of the fifteen, were like Lesley Whitfield, killed in an incident involving a vehicle. 


Landworker will let readers know of development on this case as it progresses. 


"We need a radical change" - Ivan Monckton, Unite rural campaigner

Labour must win the next General Election says Unite's leading rural campaigner, Ivan Monckton 

Unite’s Ivan Monckton has been an agricultural workers champion since the 1970s. Today, he has a better relationship with many farmers, some of whom hated him so much that they’d cross the road to avoid him. The improved bond is though only because there are far fewer farm workers than when the freelance countryside contractor started taking on the role of being the Voice for the Voiceless

Although he is unpaid for his untiring efforts and is now aged 65, Ivan, a big fan of Leslie Smith, the vocal critic of austerity who died aged 95 in November 2018, is determined to remain active well into the future. 

Ivan, full of enthusiasm and energy, is also optimistic that a future Labour Government will introduce policies that will create more agricultural workers for him to represent. “I never worried when farmers got upset with me. It meant I was successfully representing workers who could not speak up for themselves because their employment, housing and social standing all depended on not falling out with the famers, who thankfully I have never relied on for work.”

Ivan, who has a well stocked library of rural social history books, recognises how having such independence has been crucial role in the development and sustainability of agricultural trade unionism. “Joseph Arch owned his own home and his skills as a hedge layer meant he could always find work, George Edwards was a small holder and the Higdons at Burston were teachers.  I am following the same tradition.” 

Born in a terraced house in Wolverhampton, his parents harboured hopes of him going to University but on a North Wales camping trip he visited a Forestry Commission (FC) exhibition. When he returned to England he wrote and got a job in 1974 with the organisation at Presteigne in Powys, close to the English border. 

Ivan, who comes from a family with a trade union tradition, twice unsuccessfully sent off his form to join the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU). He then suffered a serious accident that left him incapacitated for over a year. Recognising their own mistake, the TGWU represented Ivan and he obtained £2,200 compensation. “It was a great example of the vital insurance role that unions play and why every worker should be in one. Forestry work can be very dangerous and it certainly was in the 1970s.”

On his return to work, Ivan stood for election as shop steward and won. He quickly realised, “I have a certain gift for the gab. I can argue a good case and bulls**t a bad one. I can generally get by at any meeting and get something for the people I represent.”

Ivan’s union involvement was deepened when he was elected onto the TGWU District Committee and began representing Welsh workers on the national committee for agricultural and allied workers. He has subsequently been on virtually every committee within the TGWU/UNITE including the national executive council, which he served on from 1984 until 2017. 

At the FC, Ivan, who rejected opportunities to take a management role, became part of the TGWU wages negotiating team but he departed his post when he became seriously unwell with rheumatoid arthritis and was not expected to make a recovery. Happily he later successfully experimented with alternative forms of medicine. “I was back working as freelancer for the FC within a year of leaving, which had been cushioned because the TGWU had negotiated a small lump sum and I had a pension. It was another example of why being in a union is essential.”

As a countryside contractor since the 1980s, Ivan, who lives with his partner in a remote cottage at the end of a long muddy road outside Evenjobb, near Old Radnor, has built numerous small bridges and paths, erected thousands of signs and hung many gates and fences. “Most of my work has been with the local council on providing the infrastructure for rights of way. For many years I did every single piece of work, some of which was exhausting, on around 50 miles of OFFA’s Dyke, the large earthwork that largely follows the Welsh/English border.” 

Recently, Ivan has utilised the skills learnt at the FC to do forestry work that over the winter included woodland management on a local private woodland. Coppicing is a traditional method of exploiting the capacity of many species of trees to put out new shoots from their stump or roots if cut down. In a coppiced wood, young tree stems are repeatedly cut down to near ground level. A coppiced wood is harvested in sections with hazel, which takes around a decade to mature, being eagerly sought after by craft workers. Watching Ivan drag out the tree stems he had used a chain saw to cut down it was clear this is back breaking work. Surely he just now needs after work to go home, rest and put his feet up? As if! 

“I remain fully committed to my union work. I have been a branch secretary for over thirty years and I have represented, with varying degrees of success, numerous farm workers in battles to keep their jobs and homes. There has also been struggles for compensation for injured workers. ”


Ivan is the equalities officer within his local branch in North East (NE) Wales and he chairs the Unite NE and Mid Wales area activists committee. He is on the Unite negotiating team for agricultural workers on the Welsh Agricultural Advisory Panel or Wages Board that was established by the Welsh Assembly after the coalition Government scrapped the England and Wales AWB in 2013. 

“It was vindictive by the Cameron-Clegg government and was the most shocking political act against the rural working class in my lifetime. 

“It was not as if it had proven possible to obtain great wages for agricultural workers. Unite’s prediction that removing the protection that the AWB gave to farmworkers would make things worse in England has proven to be true.

“After I spoke at a conference about why we need an AWB the Welsh Labour ministers listened, then went to the Supreme Court to successfully obtain a legal ruling before establishing a board consisting of two members of UNITE, two members of Welsh farming unions and three independent members. In the second year the seven of us agreed on a substantial 9.85% pay rise. “

During the campaign to elect a new Labour leader in 2015, Ivan spoke at a Jeremy Corbyn support rally in Cardiff. He was delighted when the Chippenham born socialist, whose long running commitment to tacking rural poverty is well known amongst activists such as Ivan, was elected. “Jeremy, who lived in Shropshire as a boy, has been a regular visitor and speaker at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Annual Festival. Much of what he says I agree passionately with. I have been in the Labour Party all through my life. At times I have found the Party leaders have not reflected by beliefs and hopes.”

What would Ivan like to see a future Labour Government do in the countryside? “Jeremy has already committed to restoring the AWB. We need improved public transport as many people don’t have a car. There is plenty of housing going up round here but none is public or is affordable enough to purchase. That needs to change. Planning rules need to be upheld.

“Roving safety reps to prevent the large number of farming tragedies would be good. The £3 billion that currently goes to large landowners from the Common Agricultural Policy could be switched towards creating more jobs on the land. There is plenty that could be done including looking after the trees we have got rather than seeing them bulldozed down when they become diseased. 


“Once a General Election is called I will be doing my best to get Labour into power. We need a radical change of direction after the unnecessary austerity that has been imposed on working class people.” 


FORESTRY COMMISSION CHOPPED IN TWO

Unite reps at the Forestry Commission in Scotland and England veto centenary celebrations as Commission splits. 

FORESTRY COMMISSION CHOPPED IN TWO 

The Forestry Commission was set up in 1919 to expand Britain’s forest and woodlands after depletion during WWI. It did just that, raising Britain’s forest cover over the next 70 years from 5 to 12 per cent. 

It meant that when an attempt was made in 2010 by the Tories to privatise the organisation that manages some of Britain’s most spectacular landscapes, provides outdoor recreation facilities and harvests timber to supply domestic industry, there were wide scale public and trade union protests that forced a climbdown. 

Yet even though it’s now a hundred years old there has been no celebration amongst Unite reps. Because on 1 April the once proud body that was until 2013 responsible for forestry in Wales, Scotland and England has been reduced to three national organisations after Scotland and England separated, six years after Wales went its own way and became Natural Resource Wales. 

Two new bodies - Scottish Forestry and Forestry and Land Scotland - have been established in Scotland. These bodies report to the devolved Scottish Government at Holyrood where back in 2009 the ruling SNP, which had quietly sold off a number of forests when they became the ruling party two years earlier, announced plans to lease off a quarter of forestry land to private companies for 75 years. Trade union and public opposition forced an SNP climbdown.

Unite senior steward in Scotland, Neil Grieve, wants to “build on the working relationship we have already developed with the Scottish Government. I am though concerned as most our funding comes in a block grant from Westminster, and the Tories have, since 2010, steadily reduced the amount going to the FC everywhere. 

“This has led to considerable job losses and pay scales being eroded such that there is a wide variety of salaries for employees doing the same job.” 

Neil also highlighted how the Scottish FC has employed contractors in Scotland’s remote forests and how they have housed them in caravans. Little wonder then the champagne remains firmly on ice.  

Prior to the new structures the FC managed around 1.7 million acres and of which 70% was in Scotland where timber production brings in much needed revenue. Grieve is concerned about the future of the FC in England. 

“England is more about conservation and recreational parks. I believe some Tories may try and persuade the electorate that the FC is uneconomic, which was the grounds used by the Thatcher government to sell off forests in the 80s.” It costs just over 40p annually for each of us to fund the FC. 

Grieve’s concerns are echoed by George Whitcher, the Unite rep in the New Forest and who has worked for the FC for 40 years. His lifetime of devotions mirrors that of  his grandfather, George, who was an employee for many decades and his father,  James, who was an FC tree cutter for 49 years.

George is currently a forest craftsman but for before that he was for many years a tree cutter, which he much preferred, a post that following Tory cuts since 2010 is increasingly undertaken by contractors that have few rights and are poorly paid. 

“I like being in the forest away from factory or office work. Many of my fellow workers have long service and also enjoy working outdoors. It’s a way of life and they really care for the forest and its habitat. My fear is that in the long term the FC in England will slowly be taken out from under the public umbrella and this will lead to more and more contractors replacing those who are devoted to maintaining the forest at a very high standard.” 

George has been an elected TGWU and then Unite rep for over two decades. He is full of praise for the work that Neil Grieve did as Unite lead rep in England and Scotland between 2014 and 2019. “Really we now need someone in England to come forward and take on what Neil was doing. We need many more reps overall and more engagement by members, whose current pay and conditions will clearly be eroded unless they do get active. The union is you.” 

George, 63, is currently fighting a battle on behalf of those he represents who live in FC tied accommodation within the New Forest. “The FC wants to get the cottages to reach market rents of over £18k annually. This would make them unaffordable. I pay £635 a month rent and which is very favourable for this area but my wages are £21,000 gross. “

When FC cottages now become available the organisation is asking staff to bid for them with whoever offers the most winning out. “Front line staff inevitably lose out. It happened recently with someone in his late 40s and he has been forced to moved back in with his parents,” explained George.

“I have raised this issue wherever I can including with many MPs. I did manage at one point to get the rents held back for 12 months during discussions and so I am not giving up on the battle as the struggle to improve pay and conditions is an ongoing one which never ends. It is why I would appeal again for younger members to get more involved everywhere across the FC.

“Reps are supported by full-time officials and the training you get on the courses helps a lot as well, you also get the satisfaction of helping your work mates and those reps currently elected can also be drawn upon to offer backing,” said George who closed with a tribute to the late Edwin Rowlands, the former Unite rep in the Forest of Dean. “He was a good man who encouraged you and was available for advice and information. He did a great deal for others,” he added.  


To find out more about being a rep please contact George Whitcher by emailing mila.fernandes@unitetheunion.org who will then pass on your details to George. Mark your email for his attention.