Coronavirus outbreak hitting forestry industry, Māori families hard

By Leigh-Marama McLachlan of RNZ 

The coronavirus outbreak has forced more than 1000 New Zealand forestry workers out of a job.

The Forest Industry Contractors Association said about 30 percent of the country's logging crews were unable to work amid supply chain disruption and no one knew how long the situation would last.

Last Wednesday, Pakiri Logging in Gisborne had the tough job of telling its forestry crew harvesting is on hold and they can't work.

Adrienne Wikiriwhi said most of their 20 employees were from Ngāti Porou and it was an incredibly stressful time for them and their whānau.

"We are really really concerned about how they are able to manage without their wages - and we are not able to do anything," she said.

"They have got kids, they have got family that rely on them - their wider family that rely on them - they don't have spare cash just sitting around."

In the meantime, Pakiri Logging is offering its employees work doing odd jobs in the bush to keep them earning an income.

But with no certainty about when the situation will be resolved, Wikiriwhi said the company itself was on the line.

"Our first focus has been on our boys, on our crews, to make sure they are taken care of as best we can and then we need to look at the realities of our business, if it goes on into next week - we are in serious trouble," she said.

"We need to work by next week, or by the end of the month, there will be no business."

Yesterday afternoon, authorities including Te Puni Kōkiri, Provincial Development Unit, Trust Tairāwhiti Business and Ministry of Social Development met in Gisborne to work out how they can help.

The East Coast has some of the most expensive wood to harvest because the forests are harder to access and are some distance away from the port.

On top of that, about 90 percent of the volume of logs from Gisborne usually go to China.

Ikaroa-Rāwhiti MP Meka Whaitiri said the East Coast was being hit hard.

"Unlike larger areas, our economy up the coast is very heavily weighted on forestry, and so when we have a big hit like we are having with the forestry, it is going to have a huge impact," she said.

Ikaroa-Rāwhiti MP Meka Whaitiri said coronavirus would have a huge impact on the East Coast.
Ikaroa-Rāwhiti MP Meka Whaitiri said coronavirus would have a huge impact on the East Coast. Photo credit: Newshub

"My first port of call is to make sure those whānau that need food in the homes - that we get that out to them. And then we need to sit down and talk about the longer effect."

But it's not just the East Coast that's suffering.

The Forest Industry Contractors Association estimates that nationwide up to 1500 forestry workers are out of work.

Overall, about 75 percent of forestry workers are Māori.

Association chief executive Prue Younger said there was a lack of empathy for the workers who were going through a stressful time.

"These guys are without any knowledge of when they might pick up work again," she said.

"It's not just a matter of 'hey, I have lost my ability to get my cash flow in'. It's actually 'I have lost any cash flow and I have got to feed my family'."

She wants to see more support for contractors offered by forestry owners, many of whom are making the decision not to harvest their trees.

This is an extra blow for the industry, which only just managed to claw its way back up after log prices dropped in May last year.

The Forest Owners Association said problems stemmed from the virus spread in China, extensions to the lunar new year holiday there, and competition from increased softwood supply from Europe.

It's unclear how long harvesting will be paused.

However, Monday marked the end of the public holidays associated with the lunar new year in China, and it's hoped that as public servants return to work more will be known today.