More than 100 striking plasterers on the Royal Hobart Hospital construction project have won back-payment of their wages and coverage by a union-struck enterprise agreement. 

In yet another chapter exposing the hyper-exploitation of migrant workers that is endemic to key parts of the Australian economy, Chinese plasterers working on the $689 million hospital redevelopment walked off the job on 6 September. They stopped work in protest over sham contracting arrangements and the non-payment of wages. Many workers had gone eight weeks without pay. They were followed a week later by around 30 local workers who hadn’t been paid for a week. 

While their action was initially wildcat, most of the Chinese workers have since joined the CFMMEU. The plasterers were hired through Melbourne-based subcontractor Accuracy Interiors on a range of temporary visas. The union said that the managing contractor, a joint venture between John Holland and Fairbrother, had known about the situation for weeks before the workers forced the issue to a head. 

In addition, following CFMMEU action, Chinese plasterers at two Victorian sites also stopped work – 40 at the Blue Sky apartment project in North Melbourne and 20 at La Trobe University’s Bendigo campus.

A CFMMEU organiser in Hobart, Kevin Harkins, said, “This is an epidemic in our industry.” In 2016, more than 50 low-paid Chinese plasterers and carpenters working on the $630 million Bendigo Hospital were left without two months’ wages after Melbourne-based fit-out subcontractor Asset Interiors collapsed and went into administration. In 2014, John Holland was found to be employing underpaid migrant workers on the $1.2 billion Perth Children’s Hospital. A recent parliamentary inquiry into the project heard that John Holland was responsible for creating a “culture of fear” that prevented workers from speaking out about unsafe working conditions.

The CFMMEU reported that, with some RHH plasterers missing up to $12,000 in wages and entitlements, the total owing to workers on the project amounted to approximately $1.5 million. After union intervention, the John Holland and Fairbrother joint venture has cancelled its contract with Accuracy Interiors and will pay workers what they are owed.

With significant plastering work yet to be completed, all 130 plasterers are now back at work and being paid the industry standard rates set by the Victorian union-negotiated enterprise agreement for construction workers.