Europe’s only Indigenous People, the Sámi, have paid a heavy price for Sweden’s industrial forestry model. The forest ecosystem that their reindeer depend on has been plundered to such a degree that it threatens their culture and livelihood, which has survived for millennia.
Yet they’re not the only people suffering at the hands of a forestry industry that’s destroyed vast swathes of Sweden’s old growth boreal forests by clearcutting pristine forests and turning them into monoculture tree plantations.
From earning less than they’ve been promised, to being employed under unlawful terms, from working in poor conditions to being overcharged for their accommodation: the evidence shows that the mistreatment of migrant workers in the Swedish forest sector is so routine as to be endemic.
The story that Ryszard and Wojciech (both assumed names) told Fern, is therefore depressingly familiar.
A friend in their native Poland told them about the enticing prospect of well-paid seasonal work in Sweden that would give them the change to spend time in nature - accommodation would be provided.
“I was really short of money at that time and wanted to go abroad and work,” Ryszard said. Wojciech was attracted by the “environmentally friendly” nature of the job: planting trees. But their illusions were shattered when they arrived in Uppsala, central Sweden.
They had been told they would be by paid by how much they planted. But laden with bags of saplings weighing 30 or 40 kilogrammes (kg), and trudging across terrain overrun with tree stumps, they struggled to plant a third of the target they’d been set.
Even the experienced planters they were working with were struggling, and Wojciech and Ryszard calculated that they wouldn’t be able to earn the Polish minimum wage, let alone the equivalent of the 12,000 Zlotys a month (around Euro 2,500) they’d been promised.
Their supervisor’s response was blunt: “We were told we must worker harder and longer,” said Ryszard.
They started digging on the internet and discovered that it was unlawful to pay forest workers by planting volume. When they questioned their supervisor about this, he threatened them with the sack.
This prompted them to contact the GS Union, where they were put in touch with Kimmo Vaveniemi. A vast amount of Vaveniemi’s time has been consumed by dealing with such cases in the past five years.
“It’s more common than not that sub-contractors are violating collective agreements when it comes to planting and brushing, and that workers don’t have the possibility of reaching their targets,” Vaveniemin says. “It’s sad because it’s human exploitation.”
Vaveniemi quickly established that the sub-contractors employing Ryszard and Wojciech had deliberately violated their collective agreement. They had also overcharged them for their accommodation. Vaveniemin managed to secure compensation for the pair for the four and six weeks that they’d worked respectively.
Large volumes, as cheap as possible
The contractors employing migrant workers are just one cog in the wheel of exploitation.
“As we see it, a big issue is the forest owners, the big companies, because they push the price of the subcontractor down. So many subcontractors don’t have the possibility of following rules and agreements because the prices are so pressed. That’s actually the key to the problem,” says Vaveniemin.
This exploitation is rooted in the economic logic which underpins the Swedish forestry model. It’s a model which seeks large volumes of pulp wood and timber at the cheapest price, regardless of the long-term consequences, and in which profits and margins are all swallowed by the paper and biomass industries, at the expense of the workers at the bottom of the supply chain – as well as the smaller forest owners.
If anyone knows the mechanics of Sweden’s forest industry, it is Leif Öster. He worked in it for a quarter of a century, occupying various management positions, including Information Manager and then business strategist for the state-owned forest company, Sveaskog, Sweden’s largest forest owner. For the past 33 years he’s owned his own forest, where he runs an ecotourism business.
“The Swedish forestry model is based on volume and low processing. A prerequisite then becomes that timber prices must be very pressured and low. The profits are made in industry and the countryside is paid very poorly for the timber. Very few of Sweden’s 310,000 forest owners can make a living off timber sales,” he says.
Thwarting forest protection polices
Sweden’s clearcutting forestry model is as unsustainable for the people doing the hard work at the bottom of the supply chain, as it is for nature.
Only three per cent of Sweden’s forestry doesn’t involve clear-cutting, and every year a total area a third larger than Greater London is cut to the stump – destroying the habitats of threatened species, which has led to both a biodiversity crisis and a startling drop in Sweden’s forests’ capacity to sequester carbon dioxide.
Despite growing awareness of the harm that the Swedish forestry model inflicts on nature and migrant workers, the industry continues to promote itself as a beacon of sustainability. And in doing so, it maintains the unwavering support of much of Sweden’s political class.
The latest manifestation of this support has been on show throughout Sweden’s Presidency of the European Council.
Instead, it’s thwarted policies that could act as brake on its intensive, clearcutting model: from bulldozing key revisions out of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), to going back on a deal to have a climate target in the Land Use, Land-use Change and Forestry Regulation (LULUCF) that other EU members had agreed to.
Nevertheless, the harm caused by the intensive forest management methods deployed in Sweden – and other Member States – can be reversed. And the EU’s new Nature Restoration Law, which is currently being negotiated, offers a crucial chance to do so. It is the first comprehensive continent-wide law of its kind, and aims to restore Member States’ ecosystems.
Instead of a forestry model built on clearcutting, it could promote one which benefits nature, as well the workers employed in the industry, and small forest owners. One way it could do so, is by including binding forest restoration practices such as close-to-nature forestry, thereby putting people and nature first.
The ravaging of the natural world and the exploitation of migrant workers under the intensive forestry model, are inextricably linked.
A truly sustainable forestry model requires stopping both.
For more information, read our report Duped - The exploitation of migrant workers in Sweden’s forest sector.