THE state government announced on August 23 an expansion of financial support for timber workers as the end of native timber logging draws near.
Minister for Agriculture Gayle Tierney announced the expansion of the Victorian Forestry Worker Support Program – increasing worker top-up payments from $120,000 to $150,000 and allocating extra payments to workers over 45-years-old.
The wider community forestry sector – including firewood sellers, guitar makers, seed collectors and other Forest Produce Licensees will be eligible for the expanded Worker Support Payments and redundant equipment compensation, plus payments for undersupplied timber and a one-off hardship payment.
“After listening to the timber industry, we have expanded our support program – ensuring worker needs are met,” Ms Tierney said.
“I thank our industry stakeholders for engaging constructively to deliver meaningful support for timber communities.”
The first round of the Forestry Transition Fund is now open for impacted timber communities.
The fund will provide grants of up to $1 million to expand, diversify or start new businesses – while also allocating wage subsidies to incentivise people to employ transitioning timber workers.
The Sawmill Voluntary Transition Package is also now open to support mill owners to stay in the industry or switch to new sectors.
These packages aim to ensure worker’s entitlements are met and include plant and equipment compensation.
An initial Harvest and Haulage Support Package will be available for forest contractors in September, including contract and equipment compensation and worker redundancy payments.
Harvest and haulage subcontractors, chip truck drivers and other businesses that are heavily dependent on the native timber industry will also be eligible for the next round of the Timber Innovation Grants – expected to reopen in late September.
“The additional payments for workers in the later stages of their careers will make a big difference to timber families,” Member for Eastern Victoria Tom McIntosh said.
Felicia Stevenson, president of the Heyfield Timber Festival Committee, told the Gippsland Farmer she felt as if Heyfield was “left to rot.”
“As far as I’m concerned, there are a lot (of) things that the Andrews government say, but we are yet to see, and I’m not holding out much hope that the money will get to the people/towns who really need it and deserve it,” Ms Stevenson said.
“Gayle Tierney MP and Andrews should come to the 11 towns and talk to the people that are suffering; where is the science behind shutting our most sustainable renewable industry down?”
Ms Stevenson also expressed disappointment that other organisations weren’t doing enough to fight for the industry.
“No ads in papers supporting the industry. Not one commercial on the TV,” she said.
“We need people to get involved, more people getting their stories out there.”
Member for Gippsland East, Tim Bull, said in response to the announcement that the timber industry needed more detail and support.
“This is a step in the right direction, but what I have been calling for is the government to give clear timelines for when the supports will be received and to set up an in-person presence in these timber towns where impacted persons can go and have a face-to-face chat and get some answers,” Mr Bull said.
“There remains no mention of either of these matters addressed.
“My main focus has been on getting the Government to act on these matters and ensure ‘down the line’ businesses and workers not directly employed by the mills or holding VicForests’ contracts are looked after.
“I am pleased there appears to be provision for this.
“The announcement today indicates there will be support payments for the likes of firewood sellers, seed collectors and other forest-reliant workers; however, it still does not address what the government is going to do to address the firewood shortage that it created with the ban.
“Harvest and haulage sub-contractors, chip truck drivers and other businesses heavily dependent on the native timber industry will also be eligible for supports, but they need timeframes and amounts as many are really up against it with mortgages to pay.”
Minister for Regional Development Harriet Shing said the government was also investing in job creation, training, and local development.
“After many months of uncertainty due to ongoing litigation, this funding and support is already helping Victorian timber towns, workers, and businesses to make the decisions that are right for them,” Ms Shing said.
The Victorian Forest Products Association (VFPA) chief executive Deb Kerr said the transition package in principle is welcomed but was disappointed that it benefits some and punishes others.
“As details about the exit package come to light, it’s evident that our mills are being punished twice,” Ms Kerr explained.
“They have invested tens of millions of dollars in new manufacturing facilities to see them through to and beyond the originally announced 2030 deadline – a deadline that the government has reiterated numerous times since the original 2019 announcement.”
Ms Kerr also noted the future of forest produce licences was unclear.
“While we welcome the additional support for workers, contractors, communities, and new regional businesses, it is hard to fathom how the government has treated native hardwood mills who had acted in good faith,” she said.
“This is not how a government acts that wants to promote Victoria as a prime location for business. As the main body advocating for wood and wood fibre businesses in Victoria, we will continue to fight for better outcomes for our industry.”
Australia’s timber workers’ union, CFMEU Manufacturing, welcomed the increased compensation package for timber workers who lost their jobs as a result of the upcoming closure and credited their campaign for the changes.
“It is only by workers sticking together and fighting that we have achieved this result,” said CFMEU Manufacturing Assistant National Secretary Leo Skourdoumbis.
“This change to the compensation package represents a significant improvement, as well as recognition of the challenges for older workers in finding re-employment,” he said.
The government said it will continue to consult with forest contractors to ensure their critical skills are retained for ongoing management of the state’s public land, with genuine opt-out packages available for those who choose to exit.
For more information on how to get local support, visit vic.gov.au/forestry or contact the Forestry Transition Hotline on 1800 318 182.
To register for the Victorian Forestry Worker Support Program, visit forestworks.com.au