Chants echoed through Brisbane’s streets on 28 May as thousands of unionists walked off the job to protest dodgy construction contracts being handed out by Queensland’s Labor government.
The main demand of the rally, called by the construction union, was for an inquiry into the “best practice principles” that came into effect in relation to the state’s procurement in 2018. The changes were meant to ensure that companies bidding for major public works upheld “best practice industrial relations” standards, along with other measures to funnel jobs and money into the local community. But with “best practice” inadequately defined, contractors and government have imposed dodgy contracts that don’t operate in workers’ interests.
The mood was angry, with one worker saying to Red Flag, “It’s just after an election and it’s pretty sad the Liberals are back in. But here in Queensland, it’s the Labor Party that’s in, and they’re handing out this money to construction companies and we’re getting nothing. It’s the unions that started Labor; we’re owed a bit of respect.”
The two major sites at which unions are calling for contracts to be reviewed are the Watpac Stadium in Townsville and Brisbane’s future Cross River Rail project.
Watpac was handed a $250 million contract to complete the north Queensland stadium under the best practice legislation in 2018. But soon after, the construction union uncovered the contractor engaging in sham contracting, wage theft and mismanagement.
Unionists marched to the Department of Housing and Public Works, which is responsible for ensuring the implementation of the best practice principles, demanding that it commission an audit of Watpac and terminate the company’s contract.
Most of the workers at the rally were not from the Watpac site, but were rallying to ensure proper implementation of the principles at future public works like the huge Cross River Rail project set to begin soon across Brisbane.
The mood was angry, with workers telling Red Flag they were sick and tired of the poor conditions, low pay and rotten shortcuts the bosses take on their sites. “I’m not on one of the sites that’s on the dodgy contracts”, one worker said, “but I broke my leg a few weeks ago on site, and I’d be pretty screwed without the union. It’s like, what else can you do but come out and support?”
Rowdy, a construction worker from a city site just down the road from where the rally finished, said Queensland shows that getting a better deal for workers is a fight against politicians of all stripes: “We’re out here standing up for workers’ rights”, he said. “We need to make a stand. Sham contracting, cheap labour and nothing that we brought the government in for or asked them for ... Like everything else, if we don’t make a stand now, we’re going to be walked all over by these contractors who aren’t giving decent conditions and pay. We’re all about safety. We want to be able to go to work and come home.”