It was my first experience working in a blue collar industry. I was labouring on a construction site in Balnarring, on the Mornington Peninsula. It was a VCON site owned by Element Five. I was formally employed by a workmate so the boss didn’t have to deal with multiple invoices.
No white card? No worries.
Dodgy work boots? No worries.
Induction? Fill in a few boxes.
First aid room? Yeah, I reckon we might have a first aid kit in the boss’s portable, not sure, but you’ll be right.
Double time after eight hours’ work? Mate, we call work after eight hours a favour.
Too hot to work? Nah, you’re right, just grab some water and you’ll be good as gold.
You guys need at least 10 weeks to finish this site? We’ll give you four; open the site up on Sundays.
Union presence? Get fucked.
I saw workers carrying slabs of marble on their backs as they walked across dusty and slippery tiles. We all walked up into the indoor portion of the worksite over a few bits of metal welded together as makeshift steps. When someone almost broke an ankle on them, cardboard was laid over the gaps in the steps. Never mind that more than a dozen workers, including myself, fell flat on our backs after slipping on the loose cardboard.
These conditions don’t come without consequences. Chris, a painter by trade and friendly workmate by nature, lost his life because of them. I didn’t know Chris personally, but saw him around most days I worked and remember him commenting on how shit and tedious the job was.
Chris’s accident happened on a Sunday. He fell four metres from a ladder that didn’t have adequate safety protection. The immense pressure put on us to get the job done quickly, and the lack of a union presence to counter this, resulted in his death. Profits over safety. Bosses’ interests over ours.
My workmates and I were told not to come into work Monday or Tuesday. On Wednesday, we worked the first two hours of the day and at 9am stopped for a worksite meeting where we learnt of Chris’s passing. I didn’t know how to react initially, but the mood was sombre. Someone suggested we all pitch in to help the family out. (We later learnt that the company hadn’t paid the insurance it should have, so Chris’s family would miss out on the payment they were entitled to).
We held a minute’s silence out of respect. It was then announced the site would be shut for the rest of the day – the bosses sighed at the horror of six hours’ work lost.
We were told we didn’t have to come to work the next day. Out of the principle of solidarity and not knowing how to feel or what to do, I didn’t. The day after I was told to call the boss. I was out of work.
It’s an experience that has shaped the way I see the world, and one that will remain with me forever. This was not a freak accident or a one off. Every year, between 20 and 30 Australian workers die after falling from a height. It’s the most common cause of death on a construction site. Chris’s death was the result of our boss’s disregard for his life. It wasn’t an accident; it was the product of a system that puts profits over the lives of working class people.
It’s a system that aims to control many aspects of our lives. At work, the control is explicit. We put our lives on the line to make a living while those that reap the profits walk around reminding us how important our exploitation is to them. They leave the job each day clean and without a scratch on them.