THE nation’s peak forestry advocacy group has called on state and federal governments to label the sector as an “essential service” to ensure the industry is not hit with potentially crippling COVID-19 restrictions.
With the industry already grappling whether forestry workers can today travel across the Victorian-South Australian border, the industry is also nervously awaiting whether they will be swept up in operational bans or restrictions.
This comes as the number of COVID-19 cases continue to climb across Australia.
Any move to restrict or ban the manufacturing/forestry harvesting operations would potentially affect thousands of workers across the Mount Gambier district, which is home to the nation’s largest processing cluster.
Australian Forest Products Association – which has a strong membership across the Limestone Coast’s forestry processing sector – said it was imperative for government to recognise the essential services provided by the forest industries as it considers further restrictions to contain COVID-19.
“As a primary producer, the forest industries supply essential products and services to our communities which they will continue to rely on throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic,” association SA branch manager Leon Rademeyer said.
“Our forest industries have a long value chain which is sensitive to disruption, even minor disturbances and restrictions can affect not only the industries, but also the regional and rural communities they underpin.
“We look forward to continue working with government in this regard, including ensuring risk mitigation measures across our industry value chain.”
Conceding the need for unprecedented shutdowns for large parts of the economy, association chief executive Ross Hampton said forest products industries supplied essential products and services.
These products included timber for housing construction, kerbside recycling services, manufacturing toilet paper and tissues as well as cardboard packaging for supermarket and retail home deliveries.
Mr Hampton said all of these products were part of an interconnected supply chain that was “delicately balanced and employs tens of thousands of blue collar workers”.
“Our industry has been proactive in implementing risk mitigation measures to minimise the risk of COVID-19 across our supply chains and we will continue to act in accordance with the latest health advice,” Mr Hampton said.
“However, it is important that all levels of government understand that many of the essential products and services that our communities will continue to need throughout this ordeal are contingent on the continued operation of much of the forest products industries.”
He warned it was “not possible” to close one sector without impacting on another.
Mr Hampton said defining forest product industries as essential services was consistent with other countries’ approaches to managing the COVID-19 shutdowns.
“Last week the US Department of Homeland Security and the State of California listed workers involved in the manufacture and distribution of forest products as providing an essential service and that service is just as essential in Australia,” the national forestry industry leader said.
“In providing it the industry will of course abide by all social distancing measures set out in the current restrictions and will continue to protect all their employees using the best practices possible. ”
“This is a time for all Australians to work together and the Forest Products Industry will proudly work with all governments to get through this crisis.”
But he reiterated governments must recognise that what the industry provided was a “necessity, not a luxury”.