The Turnbull government’s campaign to discredit unions and prop up big business ignores the reality of who the real bullies are in Australia’s construction industry, writes Michael Brull.
Last week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull released a video to the Courier Mail, before spreading it on social media. It got a lot of traction in the media, and gave a push to his campaign to bring back the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).
Turnbull claimed that it “shows why we must restore the rule of law to the building and construction sector. Australian workers deserve an industry free from threats, intimidation and illegal behaviour.”
Minister for Employment Senator Michaelia Cash made similar comments.
It’s worth taking a closer look at the video. In the news.com.au version, the man in the video’s conduct is described as “shocking” and “expletive laden”. Yet it notes that, “The official appears to threaten a safety adviser on the site with his job over putting safety measures in place.”
Similarly, the Courier Mail describes a “confronting tirade”, showing “how builders are bullied”. Yet it notes that, “The leaked footage shows a CFMEU official driving on to the worksite, demanding more safety procedures be put in place because it is raining.”
The video does include swearing and abuse. The man in the video calls the Grocon employee a “c*nt”. He also makes what sounds like a threat. His threat runs roughly as follows: “You know what, I know your phone number. I know where you live c*nt. I’m telling you now, I’m fucking telling you, c*nt. If you don’t do your job and protect those workers, I’m telling you now. Mate do your job. Do your job.”
The man in the video also said: “You fucking murder people, you and your corporation, and what you represent, have killed people mate. That’s a fact.” And “You get off your fucking ass, you’re supposed to be a safety bloke.”
The man from Grocon being abused and threatened is civil. His voice stays calm and level. He is polite. But his behaviour is no less menacing than the man swearing on video.
In April 2013, Clay Lucas and Ben Schneiders reviewed Grocon’s record for Fairfax, in an article titled “Grocon’s safety failures”. They obtained WorkSafe reports involving Grocon since 2011. They found that Grocon “seriously infringed safety requirements at least four times between February 2011 and February , and was once ordered to immediately stop work to improve safety conditions”. They also found “14 reports of less serious incidents on Grocon sites that resulted in either minor injuries to workers or warnings from the safety regulator”.
For example, in one incident, “a piece of concrete dislodged from the facade of the former Myer building and fell eight storeys onto the street. No-one was injured”.
Other incidents were better known. In February 2013, “a crane driver fell to his death at Grocon’s Emporium project in Lonsdale Street”. In March 2013, a “15-metre-long section” of a brick wall “fell onto Swanston Street in March last year, killing teenage siblings Alexander and Bridget Jones, and Dr Marie-Faith Fiawoo from France”. Grocon pleaded guilty, as reported in Fairfax, “to a charge of failing to keep a safe workplace”. They were fined $250,000 for killing three people.
When the Courier Mail reported on the video given to them by Turnbull, they didn’t discuss this history. Presumably, the fact that Grocon worksites aren’t safe struck them as irrelevant. A man pleading with the safety adviser to do his job disgusts them: why can’t he be more polite? Why can’t he be civil and adhere to standard formalities like the safety adviser?
My point is not to exonerate the threats of the man in the video. Putting aside the morality of menacing behaviour, his threats against the safety adviser didn’t have any positive effect, and certainly didn’t elicit any empathy. It has primarily served as a weapon for politicians to use against unions and the rights of workers.
For those who want to protect the safety of workers on construction sites, a more effective course of action would be joining the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU).
The CFMEU is among Australia’s strongest unions, and it has campaigned with great courage for years to make Grocon’s worksites safe. Yet the CFMEU was fined $1.25 million for protests against Grocon in 2014, in addition to Grocon’s legal costs. In 2015, the CFMEU was fined another $3.55 million for protesting Grocon.
The CFMEU has faced extremely heavy financial blows from the courts, whilst Grocon faced a comparatively far lighter fine for actions which caused the deaths of three people.
In numerous other cases of causing injury and death, there was no accountability for Grocon at all.
According to the National Secretary of the CFMEU, Dave Noonan, the man in the video has never been a CFMEU official. But the paper that Turnbull released the video to – and the Murdoch papers that ran with it – claimed that he was.
In the same story where Turnbull released the video, the Courier Mail reported that “the Government will bring forward the reintroduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission as early as today”. Renee Viellaris went on to report that Turnbull would “argue the ‘militant’ CFMEU in Queensland treats court fines like ‘parking tickets’”. Presumably, the answer is harsher fines, and perhaps even prison to solve the problem of workers fighting for safe working conditions.
According to Safe Work Australia, construction is one of Australia’s most dangerous jobs. From 2003 to 2013, 401 construction workers died from workplace injuries. From 2012 to 2013, the construction industry had the fourth highest rate of serious claims, and the fifth highest fatality rate from 2013 to 2014.
Five people have died doing construction work in October alone.
Yet the laws are heavily tilted in favour of companies like Grocon. The CFMEU faces savage fines of millions of dollars for protesting unsafe working conditions, whilst Grocon gets away with killing and injuring workers. Turnbull wants to respond to this by not only tipping the legal system further in favour of construction giants like Grocon, a company worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but he wants to further strip away the rights of those fighting to make their workplaces safe.
To return to the video, it is not just the swearing man who issues a threat. The safety adviser who refuses to listen to the worker concerned about unsafe working conditions is also issuing a threat.
And so is the government, which watched the video, and was apparently incapable of hearing both sides of the argument.
They too don’t care about the safety of workers. There may not be swearing involved, but their indifference is also a threat. Indeed, it is the most menacing part of this saga.
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