If you are a UK-based tree surgeon who has never worked abroad, you may be surprised by the gulf between pay and conditions here and in other countries. But what’s the cause? And what’s the remedy?

AS individual workers we don’t often have the right to demand how much money we are willing to trade our time for. What we do have is the right to decide when, where and for whom we are willing to trade our time, partly according to where we think we will reap the most rewards.

Similarly, we have the right to work under the pay and conditions that are dictated to us, and never seek more than that which we are offered. Survive we must, but living hand to mouth isn’t a lifestyle that many would consciously choose.

Some of our ancestors fought and died for workers’ rights, including the right to earn a living wage. Today, workers in the UK’s most dangerous land-based profession still face this problem more than any other. Home, food and energy prices have risen, yet wages have not. 

It is possible in other countries for a self-employed tree climber to achieve something closer to financial freedom solely through the application of their labour. In Australia for example, a self-employed climber can earn upwards of AUD $600 per day. Over just 10 months this is a turnover of AUD $120,000 (£62,500 at the time of writing), which accommodates eight weeks off annually for sickness and holidays. In this article I will attempt to identify the obstacles to a UK-based climber turning over £60,000 solely through the application of their labour.

Forestry Journal: The work of arborists is further protected in the Netherlands, where construction workers are not qualified nor insured to carry it out.The work of arborists is further protected in the Netherlands, where construction workers are not qualified nor insured to carry it out. (Image: essentialARB/Steve Davison)

My curiosity was originally piqued by Brexit. In 2018, after climbing trees self-employed for 13 years in the UK, I went to work in the Netherlands. My first act was to translate the Dutch word for arborist. I copied and pasted that to the group search feature on Facebook to find the Dutch counterpart for the Arbtalk group. I wrote a post in English enquiring about work and was quickly contacted by a firm just outside of Amsterdam. 

During our initial phone call I was informed the pay was €38–42 an hour, and that I could expect to work eight hours per day every day for the foreseeable future. They had enough work to keep me busy full-time and I was welcome to come and start immediately.

After the call I did some maths. €38 x eight hours equals €304 a day. €304 x five days equals €1,520 a week. €1520 x four weeks equals €6,080 a month. €6,080 x 10 months equals €60,800, which would afford me eight weeks off for holiday, sickness, and days when weather would stop work.


All this as a self-employed climber with nothing more than my climbing kit, PPE, a rigging kit, climbing saw and ground saw. I was expected to pay for my own fuel and oil. In 2018 in the UK I was earning £150 a day. I had previously thought that high wages for manual work were confined to the US and Canada, but I quickly learned that such opportunities are available much closer to home. I was suddenly faced with a chance to make substantial improvements to my personal circumstances simply by doing my job in another country.

I arranged to travel to Holland to work for a week to make sure that the opportunity was legitimate before permanently committing. 30 days later I was paid €1,520 for that week.

Soon after receiving that payment I handed in my notice on my rental flat in Hampshire, and shortly thereafter was climbing every day for a firm just outside of Amsterdam.

During my first year in the Netherlands I had a turnover of €60,000, took eight weeks off and saved €20,000. This level of pay and conditions supports the subcontracted climber in their role, allows for taxes and expenses and quality of life outside of work.

Let’s take a moment to establish what a subcontracted climber should bring to site. Along with 18 years’ experience, I bring my climbING gear, rigging kit, Stihl 151TC, 201TC and 500i, my own fuel and oil, my own protective clothing and equipment, long-reach manual pruning poles and telescopic Silky. I am on site before 8 am. I bill £250 per day for my skills, experience and equipment. I work regularly for four firms between Hampshire, West Sussex, Surrey and SW London. 

For this article I contacted tree firms in North London for regular self-employed work. To my surprise I was offered £180 per day by two firms to work every day in London. With some negotiation, one firm agreed on £200 per day. This is less than I’ve been asking for as a day rate with all my equipment.

Yes, £200 a day is a £40,000 annual turnover, but after expenses, taxes and the cost of living in London, what is left for a life outside of work, or a family life? It’s a demanding, unforgiving role. What’s more, doing it every day can cause long-term physical problems, from fibromyalgia and carpal tunnel syndrome to problems associated with exhaust inhalation, and it carries the risk of more immediate, life-changing injuries, not to mention death.

Firstly, there is a disparity in the UK between arborists and other trades. For example, experienced carpenters, decorators, scaffolders, plumbers, electricians and roofers all typically earn more than an experienced contract climber, and perhaps only some of them carry £3,000 of kit to site or manage the level of risk we do. 

Intriguingly, none of the trades mentioned above are on the government’s own list of Regulated Professions. That essentially means that anyone can advertise and carry out the skilled trades. By contrast, a gas engineer must be qualified, certified and registered to carry out maintenance to a domestic boiler. Regulation of this kind in arboriculture could be a useful tool to help shift our industry towards a safer model that reflects the pay and conditions of the skilled trades that manage more immediate dangers.

Secondly, there is an international disparity in pay between arborists in the UK and the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The UK has a world-leading training programme for arborists in the National Proficiency Tests Council (NPTC), and our skills and qualifications are sought after in the countries listed above. However, at home it is hard to earn a wage that will afford us financial security, and enough annual time off to reasonably avoid the serious health hazards that come with daily chainsaw use.

One reason for the international disparity is that there is more competition in the UK. We produce lots of tree surgeons, and many realise that the only way to earn more money is if they start their own firms. Counterintuitively however, more firms equals more competition, which only serves to keep prices low. In the Netherlands, with higher pay for subcontractor climbers, many succeed by simply making self-employed climbing their business. 

One reason for the European wage disparity is that on the continent they have the European Tree Worker (ETW) certificate. The owner of the company doesn’t need to be qualified and not all employees are. But to work on protected trees or council trees an arborist must have the ETW certificate. Once qualified, this certification programme requires that arborists spend several Saturdays per year at seminars, staying up-to-date with the latest knowledge and best practices.

If an ETW-qualified tree worker does not attend a certain number of weekend seminars per year, their status as a certified ETW is revoked. Such a system might seem like overkill. However, the problem it solves is that it helps reduce the number of unqualified, inexperienced people who are currently free to sell tree services, undercutting the qualified, experienced firms on price, increasing insurance premiums, and undermining the industry as a whole. This solution would reduce competition and raise the integrity of our industry at the same time.

As a side note, one day in the Netherlands we were called to a site in Amsterdam to work for a construction company. They could have used an excavator to dig out some tree stumps and they had waited for us to get there before they assisted us with the excavator.

When I enquired about this I was told that it was because they are not qualified nor insured to undertake our specialism. Such cross-trade insurance limitations and labour laws, if enforceable, would help ensure that construction companies use qualified and certified personnel to carry out specialist work.

Thirdly, there is a point about local authorities in the UK taking advantage of the competition, demanding that contractors enter a blind bid and awarding the work to the lowest bidder. It’s impossible for a firm like that to pay a skilled climber what they’re worth when the firm is working for such little reward. This process encourages a race to the bottom regarding quality of work and safety in the workplace.

Forestry Journal: A year spent working on street trees in the Netherlands allowed Steve Davison to save €20,000.A year spent working on street trees in the Netherlands allowed Steve Davison to save €20,000. (Image: eA/SD)

There is one final reason we’re not paid as much as our European, American and Australasian counterparts. It’s ourselves. It’s pride. We know it’s hard work, and we know it punishes our bodies and that our climbing careers are short and that tree surgery is the most dangerous land-based industry in the UK. We know this job isn’t for everybody and that it doesn’t pay us what we need in order to thrive in the UK. Despite that, we passively accept that this is just how things are, that our work isn’t as worthy of pay that will enable us to own a property or raise a family. This reason is embedded deep in our collective psyche and is self-inflicted.

Only a minority of UK tree workers have worked in countries where pay and conditions reflect the required skills, experience and risk that we manage on a daily basis. So only a minority of us have the conviction that the pay and conditions in the UK arboriculture industry are inadequate.

So what’s the solution? Unionisation, perhaps? For such a divided and competitive community this seems like a stretch. Mergers would reduce competition and allow rates to rise naturally, as would acquisitions. Slowing down the creation of new firms could be achieved using the government’s ‘registered professions’ process and would serve to minimise the increase in competition. Similarly, if, for example, every tree over 50 cm at chest height was effectively protected, and only registered or certified arborists could work on them, this would create more demand for those certified climbers, which would in turn allow rates to rise naturally. In the same way that only an electrician can change a light fitting, cross-trade insurance limitations and labour laws could ensure that construction firms are forced to utilise qualified arborists for any tree work. 

I hope that by sharing my experience abroad that our industry can start a discussion about what progress might look like in the UK. In my humble opinion the discourse needs to be aimed at reaching a consensus between what a firm expects of a climber and what the climber is willing to trade their time for. This is the simplest starting point for negotiation. A generic contract could be drawn up.

Forestry Journal:

Climbers need to come together and state their minimum terms, for example, as in the Dutch system an hourly rate, understood as a minimum booking of an eight-hour calendar day regardless of early finishes, plus overtime for more than eight hours. Travel time should be included. Climbers need a firm to provide an equipped and competent rescue climber, motivated ground crew that knows how to protect the public, experienced riggers who know how to protect the climber.

Firms need to know that the climber will be on time, motivated, presentable, experienced, capable, competent, sober, can work well within a ‘speed vs safety’ framework, will turn up regardless of the weather, fully equipped to carry out the aerial operation, and can work well with the ground crew. If this sounds like you, and you are interested in improving rates and conditions in the UK, continue this discussion on the Facebook group Contract Climbers UK.