Melbourne has been rocked by a fourth major factory fire in just three years. Roughly 300,000 litres of flammable chemical waste, which was stored at a Campbellfield property owned by Bradbury Industrial Services, caught alight last week. The resulting inferno destroyed the factory, shut down the surrounding area, put two workers in hospital and spewed enormous plumes of toxic black smoke across the northern and western suburbs.
The factory is a chemical waste storage and treatment centre. It receives containers full of oils, paints and other substances mixed with the chemical solvents, known as gunwash, that have been used to dissolve them. It also receives fats and other waste from meat factories, engine oil and grease from auto mechanics, clinical waste from labs and hospitals (blood and urine) and dead lab animals.
The toxic smoke severely threatened the health of the disproportionally poor, migrant and working class people that live and work in the surrounding suburbs. The long term health effects are unknown. But no one is more affected than the 25 workers who staffed the Bradbury factory. Ten agreed to talk to Red Flag the day after the fire to tell their story, helped by an interpreter.
All 10 of the workers, along with most of the rest of the workforce, are Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka. “We have all faced some sort of persecution from the government”, one says. “That’s why we’re here.” They hoped to build a new life in a safer place, but have instead faced relentless discrimination from the Australian government and dangerous working conditions imposed by bosses with scant regard for their safety.
The fire started as one worker, Vignesh Varatharaja, pumped chemicals into a 240-litre drum at the beginning of his 6am shift. The chemicals caught fire, severely burning Vignesh and spreading to the rest of the waste stored at the facility.
The workers say Vignesh had to pull the fire alarm manually because the automatic smoke detectors didn’t work. A manager then attempted to use a fire extinguisher to douse the flames, only to discover that it didn’t work either.
Soon, the entire factory was engulfed as barrels weighing hundreds of kilograms exploded and rocketed six or seven storeys high into the air.
According to the workers, the managers were no help – they didn’t even bother to call an ambulance for Vignesh, who had to be taken to emergency by one of the truck drivers. He spent the next day in an induced coma so hospital staff could attend to the second degree burns on his face and body.
As shocking as this callous disregard for basic safety may seem, the workers claim that this is par for the course at Bradbury. Similar examples come thick and fast. They cut their hands on the drums when trying to open them. They frequently suffer from back pain and muscle strains as they push and pull drums weighing hundreds of kilos without the plastic handles recommended by Worksafe. One tore a ligament when he slipped in chemical sludge and fell. Another was hospitalised when he was hit by a drum as it fell from a stack of drums four or five high.
“One of the chemicals we work with is acetone”, another says. “When we open a drum it can spill or splash it on us. One worker got rashes and bubbles all over his stomach when it splashed on him.”
Another was hospitalised after his forehead was splashed by a corrosive substance earlier this year. Several workers have suffered skin rashes, blisters, nausea and vomiting. Others have had chemicals splash into their eyes.
All are emphatic that any time there is an injury it is swept under the rug by management. None have even seen an incident report form. And they are expected to drive themselves to hospital if injured.
Even short of injuries, the conditions of their day to day work are unnecessarily hazardous. Much of the waste the workers handle emulsifies into a thick, putrid chemical tar – the workers call it “sludge” – at the bottom of the barrels. One has a picture of himself covered from the neck down in this sludge. When asked if he was that dirty because of an accident, the men respond unanimously: “No, that is what we look like most days!”
“We were only getting safety gloves once per week”, another says, “and they wouldn’t give us proper body suits or jackets. They even just wash the gloves and re-use them again and again. The gloves are not very good – they often don’t last more than half an hour. They often run out – we have to buy PPE [personal protective equipment] ourselves.
“When there is a health and safety visit we get proper masks, but otherwise we get very cheap ones. When they know that the EPA [Environmental Protection Authority] is coming out, they will go around and make sure the workers are wearing glasses and gloves, but the rest of the time they don’t care.”
The workers also face continual bullying and harassment from managers. They are verbally abused for not hitting productivity targets. They also say that several workers have been targeted and sacked after complaining about workplace issues.
The exact cause of the fire has not been determined. But the workers here report several irregularities by management in the lead up to the fire. They were told the day before that they should show up the next morning at 8am instead of their normal 6am start time – something they say has never happened before. Ten people should have been working at the time of the fire, but there were only five. Meanwhile, they say managers and truck drivers showed up to work hours earlier than they usually do. They also insist that it was impossible for the chemical that Vignesh was pumping to combust by itself, and that it must have been mixed with something else.
Regardless of the immediate cause of the fire, Bradbury’s disregard for basic safety measures meant that it was only a matter of time before disaster was likely to strike. Despite several site visits before the fire, and the outbreak of four or five smaller fires in the factory in recent years, the EPA and Worksafe failed to force the company to clean up its act.
The company’s license was suspended in March after the EPA discovered it was storing 450,000 litres of material – three times the amount it is licensed for. However, this only prevented the company from receiving more chemical waste while doing nothing about the waste it already had on site.
The EPA didn’t use its “step in” powers, which allow it to take control of a site and remove a major hazard. Instead, the company was left to arrange to remove the material. When the EPA visited the factory two weeks later – the day before the fire – it discovered the company was continuing to store more waste, double the amount, than its license permitted. But still it did nothing to shut down the company.
By September last year, following the sacking of three of their workmates for requesting sick leave, several workers had had enough. After contacting the Tamil Refugee Council and the Migrant Workers Centre at Trades Hall, they decided to join the union.
One of the key issues was wages well below the legal minimum set by the award. The union and the Migrant Workers Centre have been assisting them with wage theft claims that could total between $100,000 and $500,000.
Another issue was hours. They were forced to work 60-hour weeks. With the help of the union, that has been reduced to between 40 and 50 hours. Management has also been forced to supply gloves and other safety gear more regularly.
“We don’t know any rules about this country”, one worker says when asked why they joined the union. “So if anything happens to us we thought the union could help. And because whenever we say the word ‘union’ the company gets scared.”
They say it is impossible to separate the appalling conditions in these factories from the discriminatory immigration policies of the Australian government: “We’re in this situation partly because of the government keeping us in an uncertain future for years. If there was some sort of certainty about visas we may be able to find safer jobs.”
One man spent eight years in a refugee camp in Indonesia waiting to be settled in Australia, and roughly 50 percent of the workers are on bridging visas. Many spend months going around regional Victoria looking for jobs on farms and in meat factories.
“When we are on a bridging visa the company thinks we could be deported at some point”, another worker says. “We have been in this country for seven or eight years. We are not happy with the way the government is treating us.
“We haven’t seen our parents for seven or eight years. If anything happens to us, like what happened to Vignesh, and we die, it would be a struggle to even get our dead bodies home to our parents.”
One man said that the Tamil father of his girlfriend died from a heart attack and it cost $10,000 to get his body back to his family in Sri Lanka.
The workers’ precarious immigration status means they are more easily preyed on by companies like Bradbury. At the time of writing the company still hasn’t contacted them about the fire or told them if they still have jobs.
“We are not confident that the company will do the right thing by us. They treat us as if we don’t know anything. They’re trying to wash their hands of this and hand the responsibility for the fire to someone else.”
The workers have a clear message for others facing unsafe working conditions and awful bosses: “Our message to workers in this situation is to join the union. Make sure that before issues like this arise you work together and try to stop them.”