Supporting raw-log hungry China robs B.C. of jobs

By Ethan Baron, The Province September 23, 2011

It’s a record: in the first six months of this year, more than 40 per cent of trees logged on the B.C. coast were exported as raw logs, says the union representing thousands of B.C. wood-industry workers.

“Simply saying to [forestry companies], ‘You can export whatever you want’ is absolutely wrongheaded,” says Bob Matters, chair of the United Steelworkers’ wood council. “You’re just shipping away jobs.”

The Steelworkers last week received from forests ministry officials the data about coastal log exports, Matters says, adding that raw-log exports have historically made up about 10 per cent of the coastal harvest.

Premier Christy Clark’s “B.C. Jobs Plan” released this week is remarkably thin with regard to the forestry sector. Its list of “Targets on the Path to Success” sets out specific goals for international-education student numbers, mine openings and upgrades, transportation infrastructure and other economic sectors, but leaves out the wood industry.

The jobs plan promises aggressive pursuit of Asian markets. “China is undertaking the largest residential construction program in its history, and we can play a significant role in providing the materials it needs,” the plan says.

Yes, using our raw logs, China gets the lumber-making jobs, and all the employment and profit that spins off in Chinese plants making particle board, doors, furniture and other goods, many of which are then sold back to Canada.

Last year, China’s forest-products imports rose 40 per cent over 2009, while its wood-products exports surged 34 per cent higher than in 2009, according to the Vancouver-based International Wood Markets Group.

B.C. has lost 10,000 permanent forest-industry jobs since 1996, says Matters of the Steelworkers, which represents about 15,000 loggers and sawmill workers in B.C. Between 2000 and 2009, 71 wood-product manufacturing plants closed, including 45 lumber mills and 16 producers of engineered and value-added wood products, according to the union.

Raw-log exports from B.C. to China skyrocketed from 93,555 cubic metres in 2006 to 1,136,901 cubic metres in 2010, according to an August report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).

Not only do log exports rob B.C. of lumber-mill jobs, they take wood away from manufacturers and potential manufacturers of value-added wood products made with by-products from lumber-making, Matters says. The Steelworkers are waiting to hear back from the B.C. government on their proposal to change the stumpage-fee regime so companies pay lower fees if they manufacture logs into wood products, and higher fees if they sell the logs raw.

Matters admits competing for wood-products market share against low-wage, low-regulation countries like China will be challenging. The B.C. government must promote and mandate investment to update wood-product manufacturing facilities, so goods can be made at lower cost, and must ensure value-added manufacturers have access to fibre, Matters says.

The U.S. value-added wood-products market is worth $200 billion and is growing at a rate of eight to 10 per cent a year, according to the CCPA.

B.C.’s forests ministry this summer launched a review of raw-log exports “to ensure that the volume of logs being shipped overseas is appropriately being balanced with domestic needs,” says ministry spokeswoman Vivian Thomas.

ebaron@theprovince.com

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