Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant. Picture: SOWETAN
Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant. Picture: SOWETAN

THE forestry industry, which could face a 50% increase to minimum pay when farm workers wages are adjusted in April, will on Friday appeal to Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant to exclude the sector from the new arrangement.

Forestry SA CEO Michael Peter said the employer association would meet Ms Oliphant on Friday armed with independent research showing that most timber growers would shed jobs if faced with "ridiculous" wage increases. As in the agricultural sector, minimum wages in forestry are set by ministerial sectoral determination on the basis of advice from the Employment Conditions Commission.

In 2011, it was decided that wages for forestry workers — who are more poorly paid than farm workers — should be brought to parity with the agricultural sector. The determination states that for last year wages for forestry workers would be 98% of those of farm workers, and that full parity would be achieved this year.

Ms Oliphant is expected to announce the new wage determination for farm workers on Monday. There is widespread speculation that she will set the new level at R105 a day — the amount recommended to her by the commission. This would amount to a more than 50% increase on the existing level of R69.

But the forestry industry says now that the "situation has changed" and radical wage increases are on the horizon, the determination should no longer automatically follow the farm worker wage. Prior to the wave of strikes on Western Cape farms, it had been envisaged that farm worker wages would increase by the consumer price index plus 1.5% this year and the next one.

"It was our intention that there should be parity," Mr Peter said. "But should agricultural wages change suddenly, we reserve our right to renegotiate. So it is not certain that we should reach parity in April next year if agriculture agrees to ridiculous increases."

The outcome is certain to come down to legal interpretation. At present, the ministerial determination made in 2011, which pegs forestry and agriculture together, remains in force.

Forestry SA represents 11 companies, 1,300 commercial timber farmers and 20,000 emerging small-scale growers, which together control 93% of the total plantation area in the country.

The sector employs about 170,000 people in direct jobs and related industries. Mr Peter said large companies, such as Sappi and Mondi, would more easily be able to adapt to wage hikes through mechanisation. Smaller-scale producers and "mixed farmers" would not be able to escape as easily. "The net effect of massive wage increases for the independent guys would be job losses. The last three years have been terrible for timber producers. This is not the time to increase the cost of doing business."

Sappi and Mondi said they were unable to comment until talks with Ms Oliphant had been concluded.