Australian construction unions have joined the National Electrical and Communications Association, the Master Builders Association and other boss’s organisations in demanding that the construction industry be kept running during the coronavirus pandemic. As an electrical worker and union member on a major Melbourne building site, I’ve never been more furious with my own union leadership.
The virus has now spread to every continent on Earth. Much of Europe and China are in complete lockdown, satellite photos are documenting secret mass graves in Iran, and the death toll in Italy is close to 1,000 people per day. (The exact numbers are a bit murky because Italian medical staff have said they are no longer able count the dead.)
The pandemic is the greatest health crisis in a century. Scientists believe that infection rates could exceed 50 percent, causing a collapse in health care systems and many millions of deaths globally. The Australian government’s deputy chief medical officer said the disease will kill up to 150,000 in Australia.
But what have construction workers heard from the leadership of our unions? State and national branches of the CFMMEU (Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union) are lobbying government and industry bosses to keep construction sites open even if a worker on the site tests positive with COVID-19. They’ve gone so far as to threaten legal action against builders if they unilaterally close construction sites out of safety concerns.
According to Allen Hicks, the national secretary of my union (the Electrical Trades Union), “It’s ludicrous to suggest that because there’s one case of coronavirus, a construction site would need to stop indefinitely”. He reckons that the global pandemic is “just one more risk that needs to be managed” by electrical workers.
This orientation from the leadership has flowed through to the shop floor. Building union officials and delegates are not taking the issue seriously on my job. We’ve had updates every morning at toolbox meetings before work, but the officials and delegates have made it clear that the site can be shut down only by Australia’s chief medical officer. A workmate said it best after one such meeting: “The unions were happy to have mass strikes and rallies to try to get Labor elected, but now their hands are tied when faced with a health and safety crisis as serious as this”.
The idea that our health and safety should be left to the discretion of companies like Grocon, the greed of which resulted in the deaths of three passers-by after a wall at one of its construction sites collapsed in 2013, would be laughable if it wasn’t so horrifying.
Recommendations from medical experts and health care professionals have been clear: the only way to avoid catastrophe is to roll out a massive program of testing and social distancing. Morrison and state premiers, including Daniel Andrews, paid lip service to this by enacting a social distancing policy. They’ve made exceptions for essential services. But exactly why the construction of apartment towers for landlords and property speculators is “essential” remains unclear. What is clear is that they want work to go on as normal for as long as possible, whatever the human cost.
My jobsite has over 250 workers, all of whom share a break room that is barely large enough for us to sit in and eat at the same time. It is impossible to socially distance while at work, and many of us catch public transport, furthering our exposure to infection. These construction sites are perfect for spreading the viral outbreak.
Many construction workers, especially in the commercial side, are in their 50s and 60s and would be vulnerable to the virus. Their lungs are already compromised by years of exposure to silica dust, asbestos and other pollutants. The fact that we are all exposing ourselves to the virus while at work negates any attempt at social isolation on the part of our families. Our continuing work puts everyone at risk.
If the pandemic is a severe as many experts predict, most major construction projects will be shut down in the coming weeks. But it should be happening now. It remains to be seen exactly how many more construction workers and their families will get sick and potentially die so that the bosses can make a few more million bucks before the economy goes into complete meltdown. As a workmate told me last week, “They don’t give a fuck about us – this is all about money for them. Why else would we still be working?”
All major construction projects other than hospitals (if governments can be bothered building these) should be shut down, with all workers given full pay for the duration of the pandemic. The fact that the construction unions have refused to call for this, or even organise on the job for basic health and safety measures, means they are effectively prioritising the boss’ profits ahead of their own members.
Fuck the buildings – they’re not going anywhere. We can finish them after the coronavirus crisis has ended.