North Coast Sleeper Cutters
NORTH COAST SLEEPER CUTTERS
Mr JEFFERY (Oxley) [5.32]: It seems that the sleeper cutters of my electorate and other North Coast towns may shortly be dismissed from their employment through no fault of their own. The axe is about to fall: the sleeper cutters will be the latest victims to join the unemployment queues. Members may recall my plea in this House approximately 18 months ago for compensation to be paid to the men who were forced to leave the industry when the State Rail Authority announced a scaledown and a move towards the use of concrete rail sleepers. Those cutters who chose to remain were practically guaranteed work on a more limited basis.
Now, ironically, State Rail still wants to use timber sleepers but the Forestry Commission says there are no resources. Where is the justice for these hard-working men who have worked long hours in an extremely difficult and back-breaking occupation? For many of the workers it is the only occupation they have known for their working lives. Timber-cutting has a history going back to early last century when the Macleay, Hastings, Nambucca and Bellingen valleys were settled. Timber was then a rich resource; and it still is. It is part of the history and lifestyle of these districts and it will be a sad day indeed when that heritage is lost.
Generations of rugged individuals have hewn timber from the difficult terrain of the North Coast hinterland. The resource has not been cut out; the workers are competing for available resources. However, the sleeper industry has been in gradual decline since the 1960s when more than 1,000 sleeper cutters were employed; today there are only 219 sleeper cutters. In my home town of Kempsey there are currently 14 sleeper operators who between them hold 25 State Rail Authority tickets. Those operators have a recent history of timber-cutting in State forests in the Kempsey area.
The Forestry Commission has stated that only sufficient resource remains for two to three tickets. That means probably one or two sleeper cutters at the most will be required. That will cause a massive reduction in employment in the industry all along the North Coast. The demand for timber sleepers has not decreased at the rate originally predicted, because of delays in the establishment of a concrete sleeper plant. Compensation packages for the early termination of sleeper cutters has been suspended - the men are out on a limb. I propose two options for the Minister for Conservation and Land Management and the Minister for Transport: first, that further species be added to the list of suitable sleeper timber. Blackbutt, spotted gum and bloodwood are three species that are available in sufficient volume. Alternatively, the Minister for Transport could consider extending compensation to those sleeper cutters who are denied access to the resource.
The situation has been difficult for the men and their families. Cutters have been pushed from pillar to post. These men are only worried about where they will get their next meal to put on the table; they do not know how much time they have left in the industry. First, the State Rail Authority moved to the use of concrete sleepers - but with no firm date - and second, the Forestry Commission cut supplies, leaving the men in a catch-22 situation. The men have every right to feel hard done by. The Minister for Conservation and Land Management and the Minister for Transport should consider what compensation can be given to these men who are between a rock and a hard place. The whole sorry affair has been most unsettling. Some cutters needed to upgrade machinery, some wanted to buy a home or renovate, just like members of Parliament do. To get the normal things that most ordinary people have, they must have security. No bank or financial institution will help these workers unless there is security of the resource.
For State Rail to say it only has to pay redundancy when terminating cutters' employment is a misrepresentation of the facts. The cutters know they are on borrowed time; that is why many of them got out of the industry two years ago and provided viability for those who remained. By closing access to the resource the Forestry Commission is doing the terminating for State Rail - an approach that is morally wrong. Whichever way the problem is looked at, it is apparent that the men will be out of work, and government authorities are partly responsible. State Rail planned to terminate the employment of cutters on the coast within the next two years. When the licences were handed in, the men would have received compensation once the concrete sleeper plants were up and running. The cutters should be allowed to remain cutting until they can collect their redundancy, and this could be achieved by increasing the number of
species of timber State Rail will accept for sleepers. The men and their families deserve a break. I ask the Ministers to assist by providing justice and equity for these hard-working men who are about to have their livelihoods chopped off.
Mr MERTON (Baulkham Hills - Minister for Justice, and Minister for Emergency Services) [5.37]: The Minister for Transport, the Hon. Bruce Baird, is unable to be in the Chamber and I have been asked to present the facts on his behalf. State Rail is making increasing use of concrete sleepers because of their durability and economic advantage over timber sleepers. However, having said that, the Minister assures the House there will always be a need for timber sleepers. In 1991-92 State Rail estimated a demand of approximately 380,000 timber sleepers but required and took delivery of 505,000. This year State Rail anticipated it would need 360,000 timber sleepers but will be accepting delivery of approximately 460,000. In 1991 meetings were held with North Coast sleeper cutters advising them of reducing demand for timber sleepers, indicating rationalisation of sleeper depots, and terminating supply from the lower quota sleeper cutters who accept $15,000 per year from State Rail and must therefore have supplementary income sources.
According to what I have been told, it is true to say that State Rail has not reduced its demand for timber sleepers from the North Coast. In fact, since July 1992 State Rail has offered to accept the supply of timber quotas 50 per cent more than the quota. There will always be a continuing need for timber sleepers. The issue of access to timber in Forestry Commission areas is more appropriately addressed to my ministerial colleague Mr West, and I assure the honourable member for Oxley that will be done. I am further instructed that the Minister is aware of the situation. However, the reality is that some changes have been made with requirements for sleepers. Though there will be continuing orders, I am informed that the inevitable result will be a change to, and an increasing use of, concrete sleepers in the industry.