Timber compensation package savaged

Member for Morwell Martin Cameron, Member for Eastern Victoria Region Melina Bath and ANC Forestry Manging Director Daryl Hutton discuss the state government's timber compensation package. Photo: Zaida Glibanovic

Zaida Glibanovic

LOCAL forestry contractors have savaged the state government’s compensation package for their exit from the native forest industry, which closes at the end of the month.

“It felt like a kick in the guts,” said the managing director of ANC Forestry, Daryl Hutton, referring to the compensation offer under the government’s Victorian Forestry Work Support Program.

In the state government’s package, haulage contractors will receive 50 cents on the dollar for the rest of their contract, while harvesters will get 30 cents on the dollar.

Operating under the presumption of a 2030 closure, as announced by the state government in November 2019, Mr Hutton, alongside the rest of the industry, continued to buy machinery for continued work.

“There was a two-year delay on machinery, so we had to pre-order, and so now we’ve got the trucks and trailers showing up,” he said.

“Because we had to be sustainable till 2030 … these trucks are $750,000 by the time you put them on the road.

“I’m not the only one. There’s other operators that have put their houses on the line to buy these trucks.”

Still grappling with the shock closure of the industry, Mr Hutton said many contractors were frustrated as the compensation package wasn’t sufficient.

“We work as a collective to be the voice to Parliament, so we’re not going as individuals, and we just see that anger coming through from contractors,” he said.

“There hasn’t been a fair deal offered to us. All the way through, we’ve been hung on this string – how long is a piece of string we’ve never known.”

Mr Hutton called on the state government to rethink the compensation package and have it resemble the Gippsland Lakes commercial fishermen package.

That industry was given three years of their average income as the base of their departure package.

“The fisheries have set the precedence – the payout they got – so we’re after something like that,” he said.

The state government recently announced that community foresters and their workers would be given access to more transition support. With the planned timber industry closure brought forward to January 1, 2024, the state government promised an additional $200 million in support for the industry in May, but only released the details of the package on Friday, December 1.

The state government says the package will compensate operators for no longer required plant and equipment, and reimburse businesses in full for worker redundancy payments.

Community forestry workers, including seed collectors and chip-truck drivers, can also access worker support payments, including redundancy top-ups and a $3000 one-off hardship payment via the Victorian Forestry Worker Support Program.

Member for the Eastern Victoria Region, Melina Bath, labelled the package as “appalling”.

“It’s a package that failed haulage contractors, harvest contractors and betrays workers,” she said.

With contractors under government guidance to continue native timber operations – the axe fell on them hard when the state brought forward the industry’s closure. With three weeks until native timber ceases in Victoria, many contractors are hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket with equipment meant to last until 2030.

“What timber harvesters and haulage operators did was gear up for that seven-year closure; they purchased expensive equipment to meet contracts and get the best out of timber,” Ms Bath said.

“There’s paltry recognition of the debt created for timber contractors. What the government has done in the forced early closure has betrayed the timber communities, their workers, and families.”

Ms Bath called for a fairer package recognising the industry’s contribution and debt.

“Now we see this package that was supposed to be a fair package is absolutely diabolical for harvesters, haulage and for workers,” she said.

“What we expect to see and what was promised by not only the former Premier (Daniel Andrews) but the current Premier (Jacinta Allan) was a fair and reasonable package.”

In state parliament recently, Ms Bath called on Treasurer Tim Pallas to work with the federal government to deliver a fairer tax regime on employee redundancy payments.

“The government has failed to meet those obligations to negotiate with the forest contractors association and its crippling workers who are now going to end up paying up to a third of any lump sum payments back to the federal government,” she said.

“I called on our treasurer, the Victorian Treasurer, to negotiate a fairer tax deal at one stage; the state government said that (compensation recipients) would pay zero on lump sum payments, and that was just forgotten in the negotiations.”