The Guardian October 29, 2003


Building workers' lives on the line

The Federal Government's blatantly anti-union legislation 
targeting the construction industry was the focus of a protest 
rally in Adelaide last week organised by the Construction 
Division of the CFMEU. And in NSW, building workers downed tools 
last Monday as part of the campaign for legislation that would 
allow negligent employers to be charged with manslaughter when a 
worker is killed on the job. Their action follows the death of 
16-year-old Joel Exner on a building site in western Sydney on 
October 15.

South Australia

South Australian CFMEU State Secretary Martin O'Malley warned 
that the Howard Government's proposed legislation goes the heart 
of the ability of workers to organise in defence of their rights 
and conditions.

"The legislation seeks to undermine workers, by weakening the 
very union that protects their rights and entitlements from 
unscrupulous bosses and the equally unscrupulous government."

The proposed legislation would clamp down on action by workers 
when faced with unsafe conditions by banning walkouts in favour 
of a ballot process. It also wants to set up an industry tribunal 
to deal with disputes, and effectively try to cut unions out of 
the process. Such a move would leave workers vulnerable to the 
whims of employers.

"Just as the Cole Royal Commission into the building industry was 
nothing more than a political witch-hunt, this legislation is a 
clear attempt to impose unfair and dracon-ian laws for political 
reasons."

Mr O'Malley said the planned laws will put workers' lives on the 
line in the notoriously dangerous construction industry. The 
shocking reality is that on average, one building worker is 
killed each week in Australia. And that's just the reported 
statistics. How many go unreported?

National Occupational Health and Safety Commission figures show 
one in every 10,000 construction workers will die on the job. 
Comparing the risks with other industries, around 20 percent of 
all workplace injuries happen on building sites. The Commission 
estimates the annual cost of building industry deaths and 
injuries is $20 billion.

"Yet what is the Federal Government's response?", asked Mr 
O'Malley. "Not to toughen standards, but to try to weaken the 
very organisation that puts worker safety first  the union."

"The CFMEU doesn't simply talk about safer worksites, it acts. If 
a site is unsafe, members walk off the job. Immediately. No 
delays. No ifs, no buts. It takes direct action to keep workers 
safe."

"This is legislation which is aimed directly at undermining 
unions. What it will actually lead to is worsening safety 
standards. More than four times as many working days are lost as 
a result of workplace injury than are lost through industrial 
action  many of them you can bet are associated with safety 
issues!

"Weaker unions mean weaker safety. We won't stand for it, but 
will protest against it."

Wollongong

Around 1500 construction workers rallied at the Wollongong Mall 
Ampithreatre. Speakers at the rally focused much of their 
addresses on the need to protect workers from situations like 
that of Joel Exner and Dean McGoldrick who died in similar 
circumstances.

Mark Paloff from the South Coast Labour Council said that workers 
had a right to expect to go home to their families at the end of 
the day.

Greens Member for Cunningham Michael Organ addressed the crowd on 
his draft Industrial Manslaughter Bill that he is presenting to 
Federal Parliament in the next couple of weeks.

"In Australia 2200 people die from work related accidents a year. 
More people die on work sites than in car accidents", Mr Organ 
said.

The Bill will call for tough penalties of up to 25 years jail 
with fines of up to $50 million for negligent employers.

Former ACTU President Jennie George highlighted how Occupational 
Health and Safety had become deregulated over the years by both 
Federal and State Governments.

She also talked about how the government spent millions of 
dollars on the Royal Commission into the Building Industry. "It 
was a phoney witch hunt against the union movement while two 
workers died without one employer appearing before the Commission 
to account for the Occupational Health and Safety breaches that 
caused these deaths", Ms George said.

NSW Assistant Secretary of the CFMEU Peter Zaboyak talked about 
sitting in the Royal Commission every day and no one person was 
allowed to talk about a safety issue during the proceedings.

He highlighted the case of Dean McGoldrick who died scamping 
across a roof the company without a safety harness during the 
Commission hearings. His employer was only fined $20,00 dollars.

"Dean's Company went into receivership directly after the fine 
and didn't pay."

The rally in Wollongong passed a unanimous resolution to continue 
to pressure both the Howard and Carr Governments to bring in 
immediate Industrial Manslaughter legislation to prevent further 
deaths.

Sydney

The action in South Australia came as unions in NSW marked the 
death of 16-year-old Joel Exner. Public transport in Sydney came 
to a standstill last Wednesday as transport workers observed one 
minute's silence.

Ferries on Sydney Harbour and city buses and trains joined in the 
silence in Honour of Joel, who was only three days into his new 
job as a roof plumber at Australand when he fell 15 metres to his 
death. His employer provided no safety harness for Joel or his 
workmates, despite the union and the safety committee repeatedly 
calling for the harnesses to be provided.

The minute's silence was also in honour of the thousands of 
Australian workers who die each year due to employer negligence 
and in support of the union campaign for the introduction of 
industrial manslaughter laws.

"We support the CFMEU in their fight to get rogue operators 
responsible for work deaths put behind bars", said Maritime Union 
of Australia acting branch Secretary, Glen Wood. "The death of 
young Joel is not just a tragedy, it's a crime."

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