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Still here: why Tasmanian forest industry job figures are misleading

Recent arguments suggesting the size of the political debate around the Tasmanian forestry industry is disproportionate to its economic importance is misleading. AAP

The Australia Institute (TAI) has recently used Census data to claim that the Tasmanian forest industry employs only 975 workers.

Based on this, they argued that the size of the political debate about logging of native forests in that state is at odds with the economic importance of the industry. This statement comes at a time when ongoing negotiations to resolve the conflict over Tasmania’s forests – started in 2010 – have missed yet another deadline for achieving an outcome.

At the same time, the forest industry is in rapid decline, a consequence of multiple factors ranging from the effects of the strong Australian dollar on wood product markets, to campaigns by environmental groups to reduce demand for Tasmania’s forest products.

TAI’s employment figures are wrong, as is the implication that an industry is unimportant unless it employs a large proportion of the labour force. These types of arguments do little to help resolve one of the more bitter and divisive of Australia’s environmental conflicts.

Generating employment estimates is an art as much as a science, with endless debate about which jobs should be counted as part of which industry. TAI’s estimates conveniently leave out many of the jobs usually considered part of the forest industry; while they include jobs generated by forest management and logging, they leave out those in wood and paper product manufacturing.

A more accurate reading of Census data shows that the industry employed 3,410 people in August 2011, when the Census was last undertaken. This included 1040 in forestry and logging (not the 975 claimed by TAI), a further 123 in forestry support services such as the growing of tree seedlings, 1771 in wood product manufacturing, and 476 in pulp and paper product manufacturing.

The exact data sources used for these estimates are provided in this table:

Forest industry sector Number of workers, August 2011
Forestry and Logging 1040
Forestry Support Services 123
Wood Product Manufacturing 1771
Pulp, Paper and Converted Paper Product Manufacturing 476
Total Tasmanian forest industry employment
(excluding employment in craftwood, furniture making and boat building dependent on special species timbers)
Data source: ABS Census of Population and Housing 2011, downloaded using ABS TableBuilder. All data are based on ‘place of residence’ on Census night, and the data include all workers resident in Tasmania on Census night. All industry sectors listed are defined using the Australia New Zealand Standard Industry Classification, 2 digit classification, with the exception of Forestry Support Services, which is at the 3 digit classification level.

This figure does not include the jobs generated in woodcraft, furniture making and boat building by the use of “special species” timbers such as blackwood, as the Census does not enable estimates of these jobs to be made.

While their estimates are wrong, TAI are right that the forest industry is not the largest employer in Tasmania: those 3,410 jobs represented approximately 1.6% of employment in Tasmania in August 2011. Of course, like any industry, the 3,410 jobs will generate “flow-on” jobs that in turn support more employment throughout the economy.

Even after taking that into account, forestry employs fewer people than many other industries in Tasmania, including agriculture and retail trade, for example.

Debate over the number of jobs generated by politically contentious industries is nothing new. Back in 2006, the forest industry commonly reported it employed over 10,000 people in Tasmania. The reality was more like 6,400 people, something I identified in research that tracked Tasmanian forest industry jobs between 2006 and 2011 (funded by the Cooperative Research Centre for Forestry).

The figures we generated in that work have been widely used by people on all sides of the forestry debate. In our concluding report, we estimated 3,460 people were employed in the industry in May 2011 – an estimate very similar to the Census data we now have access to.

Given that accurate figures are readily available, one has to wonder why it is considered necessary to so radically underestimate employment in Tasmania’s forest industries. Whatever the reason, underestimating employment has a number of important consequences.

In particular, undervaluing the importance of the jobs the industry generates risks reducing the attention given to how changes in Tasmania’s forests affect the people who work in the forest industry, their families and their communities. An industry that generates fewer jobs can be more easily dismissed.

Changes to the forest industry – such as those being proposed in the ongoing negotiations between environmental groups, union and industry representatives – have real impacts on real people. All those involved in debates about the future of Tasmania’s forests have a responsibility to acknowledge that forest industry workers, their families, and the communities they live in, currently experience real fear, anxiety and uncertainty about their future on a daily basis.

The research colleagues and I undertook in Tasmania in 2011 demonstrated that many of those who have lost employment, as well as the many who are currently underemployed due to lack of work in the industry, experience financial and personal loss on a daily basis.

TAI is right that Tasmania’s economy as a whole is not nearly as dependent on forestry as it was historically, and that several other industries in Tasmania employ more workers. But those forest industry jobs still matter. While Hobart may not be significantly affected by a loss of jobs in the industry, many other, smaller towns would be (and have been in recent years).

To suggest that the industry is too small to warrant attention demeans the profound difficulties faced by the 3000 workers who have lost jobs since 2008, as well as those still employed in it.

There is therefore a need to recognise the very real impacts that loss of jobs, and having an uncertain future, has on the health and wellbeing of the workers, their families, and their communities.

Unfortunately, the assessment processes undertaken as part of the Tasmanian forest peace negotiations have failed to adequately acknowledge these issues.

The Independent Verification Group’s reports (to which I contributed) did not assess the social impacts of proposed changes to the industry in any substantial detail, as I documented in my contribution to that process.

Despite the work of groups like Rural Alive and Well, ForestWorks, and some government programs to support forest industry workers affected by change in the industry, the health and wellbeing of these workers remains a secondary issue in the debate over the future of the forests.

While the future may or may not involve a forest industry like that of the past, it should ensure it still has a place for the people whose livelihoods traditionally depended on that industry.

Political arguments about forests are about more than jobs (although those jobs are important). They are about conflicting views regarding the appropriate way to sustainably manage Tasmania’s unique native forests, views that are deeply held and believed in on all sides.

This is why the current attempt to find some resolution to the conflict is so profoundly important. The groups who three years ago decided they would try to break the seemingly endless cycles of protest and bitter conflict have certainly not achieved it yet; they may not achieve it at all.

But the argument that the industry generates too few jobs to justify the size of the debate does little to address the real, profound issues that drive political debate over forestry in Tasmania, or to support the people affected by that debate on a daily basis.

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