BEATING AROUND THE BUSH
Shut up and plant
FREYA WASTENEYS // COLUMNIST
Many rumours exist about tree-planting, and most of them are true. There are people who can make $30,000 in a summer, and there are also ones who spend their season partying and end up in debt to their company. There are some who swear off planting after one week in the bush, and others who are deemed “lifers” and continue to plant well-into their 40s. If planting is anything, it’s unpredictable.
There are also issues that stem from the organization of the tree-planting industry, as many planters accept questionable working conditions out of financial desperation. There is no doubt that planting can be lucrative, but this is highly dependent on a variety of factors – some of which are beyond the planter’s control.
Tree-planting is piece work – meaning the worker is paid based off their production – so a planter’s earnings depend on the company, the land and the price they receive per tree. It’s also highly dependant on the planter’s technical ability and motivation. Veteran planters often say, “there is no bad land, only bad prices,” which is the mentality required to succeed in what is often a ruthless industry.
Still, because planters are offered the opportunity to make a lot of money fast, workers tend to accept the conditions they are presented with, despite what is often a risk to their health and safety. Concerns are therefore silenced, as it’s assumed that planters agree to pain and discomfort the moment they put their name forward. Since many students today are simply eager to pay their way through school without having to work full-time throughout their studies, problems often go unchallenged.
In recent years, the Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association (WSCA) estimated that, with inflation taken into account, planters today are actually earning 30 to 35 per cent less then they did 15 years ago. Meanwhile, a study conducted by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) found that tuition has tripled since the 90s, which when adjusted for inflation, amounted to a 100 per cent increase in cost. This means that planters are encouraged to work harder and longer hours – and at a certain point we have to question whether it is still worth it.
Since so much of the industry, and a planter’s profit, is governed by production, the pressure to push through an injury is constantly looming. The sticker that comes with our brand new pair of planting bags says, “Shut up and plant!” and many successful planters internalize this motto from day one. While it’s this attitude that allows planters to make money, it’s also why many planters end up with chronic injuries. Growing up on Vancouver Island, I always had a vague concept of what planting was. The road that leads to my family’s home is peppered with clear cuts and every so often I will spot a little figure with white saddle bags, zigzagging across the land. Despite years of fascination with the tree-planting industry, it wasn’t until I was 22 when I decided to go planting. Having left a degree after two years of financial stress, I felt the need to do something different. I had some experience working in bush camps, a history as an athlete and was probably as prepared as I could have been. However, like many people, my first season was a write off.
In the first month a quick succession of setbacks took me out – there was some camp-wide puking, some tendonitis, some crying, some sprained-shoulder-ing, and some heat exhaustion (in other words: the usual). But of course, early on, planters are instilled with the idea that there is never an acceptable reason not to plant, so I pushed through an injury for another few weeks until I got over my pride and realized it wasn’t worth it.
Of course, while I decided to leave my first season, and swore that I wouldn’t plant again – I have now since finished three seasons. This is mostly because I have selective memory, tend to only remember the best parts, enjoy mild discomfort and I’m broke. Every season I see people who are encouraged to push through injuries, and there is a silent shame attached to staying in camp to recover. To say that I have a love-hate relationship with planting would be an understatement.
Tree-planting may be an extreme example of companies that use workers’ financial reliance to their gain, but there are many examples of jobs that take advantage of, and underpay, their employees (as we saw recently with the Tim Horton’s franchise owners in Whitby, Ontario). Too often, our tacit agreements with our employers, and our fear of being fired, gets in the way of improving our work environments.