By Joe Montero
When I was working for the Builders Labourers Federation back in the mid 1980’s, part of my responsibility was to research deaths and injuries in the Australian construction industry.
The evidence was clear. In one of the most dangerous industries to work in, the toll had grown enormously in the 1950’s and 1960’s and was pulled down to a fraction of what it was, by the union and its members in their workplaces enforcing far more thorough occupation health and safety standards than required under existing law.
After the government deregistered the union, largely for insisting on continuing to enforce occupational health and safety, the number of deaths and injuries began to rise again and reached a peak in the early part of the twenty first Century.
The emergence of a unified Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) turned this downward slide around once more. Then came the new attack on the union, though punitive legislation and restriction on the right of officials to act for their members. The toll started to rise again.
It is inescapable. There is a direct connection between the level of union organisation and the chances of being able to go home to one’s family from work.
Alan Austin wrote (Independent Australian 12 April 2020), “data released for 2020 shows a substantial increase in fatalities relative to the volume of construction activity, for the second year running”.
Austin attributes the temporary decline from 2008 to 201, on there being a Labor government in Canberra. This certainly helped. But the critical factor was a resurgence of union militancy enforcing employer compliance on the job.
The new period of deterioration, which begun in 2014, coincided with the stepped-up government attacks on the union, and the consequence of increasing restriction on lawful action. A major target has been action over occupational health and safety.
Alan Austin provides the figures for the upward trend. He is right to suggest that this is preventable. Most accidents are the result of employer negligence. In my time on the industry, I witnessed a great deal of this during my time with the Builders Labourers.
A major driver was the rise of the developers. Developers differ from builders in that they own the site. These are big projects, contracted out to tenants while still only at the planning stage. They attract clients by working to tight deadlines. This provides an incentive to cut corners. Profits have been huge.
Developers set the tone for the industry, donated handsomely to political parties, and walked off with the spoils.
The solution is to allow the workers in the industry to have their union, proper representation form their officials, and the right not to do work that presents an unacceptable risk of injury or death. Even better if this is backed by expanding the power of Work Safe Australia to intervene, and the introduction of a national industrial manslaughter law.
After all, has the right to be safe at work.