Canberra – the building site death and injury capital of Australia
There are no memorials for the dead and injured in the class war on building sites, except perhaps the blood stained dollars that line the pockets of the building bosses to build more dangerous sites as altars to profit.
Canberra, my city, is the worksite danger capital of Australia, according to the Canberra Times. As journalist Emma Macdonald put it today:
The ACT has the worst record for construction site safety in Australia with one in every 40 workers expected to sustain a serious injury on the job each year. The territory’s rate of serious injury is nearly double the national average.
The Australian national average is nothing flash anyway. According to Leighton’s it is twice the death rate in the UK. There they have have strict safety regulations and they enforce them both through unions and workers on site and through inspectors and a strict penalty regime for breaches.
Four out of the around 32 who died last year around Australia in the construction industry were in Canberra. Let’s put that figure, and the high rate of injuries into political perspective too.
From 2008 until October this year the ACT had a Labor minority government supported by 4 Greens’ members. Since October it has been a Labor/Greens majority government, just.
The previous Labor minority government prided itself on being the most progressive in the country as does the present Labor/Greens Government.
Apparently that progressiveness didn’t for 4 years include stopping deaths on building sites.
One of the problems has been a lack of safety inspectors in Worksafe ACT. The Labor minority government didn’t fund Worksafe ACT adequately to ensure it had enough staff to police more building sites for safety breaches.
The Labor/Greens government today released Lynelle Briggs’ Getting Home Safely report. She was blunt, saying the building industry in the Australian Capital Territory was the ‘worst performer in the country.’ She went on to say:
The industry itself is surprisingly accepting of workplace injuries with health and safety sometimes regarded as an add-on cost in a competitive industry where there is enormous pressure to complete work according to the program quickly, on time and on budget.
She said that until recently the penalty regime was soft and not strong enough to drive the cowboys out. She also highlighted there were not enough safety inspectors. The government has agreed to increase the number of inspectors with money in the next Budget. That next Budget is June 2013. How many will die before the extra inspectors are in place?
The Labor/Greens government will also establish a target of a 35 per cent improvement in the serious injury claim rate by 2016. 2016! Where’s the urgency? That is 4 years away. And it will only bring the injury rate down to the national average.
Another recommendation was for a certification system so that a company’s safety record would be one consideration in considering if the builder should win government contracts.
These are all well and good but they miss the real problem. Briggs identified it when she said that profit cannot come before safety any more.
In her recommendations, apart from increasing the penalties, there is no real attack on profit to protect lives. To do that would require a real understanding of the daily brutal class war on building sites in which the bosses’ interests are profit, profit and profit and the workers’ interests are safety, jobs and pay.
The best way to ensure there is safety on building sites is to give the workers power to cut off the flow of profits to the bosses, without loss of pay, when sites are unsafe, or for workers to take that power. The problem in Australia is that Labor under Keating made strikes and other industrial action legal and protected only during a narrow bargaining period over new agreements, normally a few months every 3 or more years.
On top of that the Howard set up a vicious union attack dog on building sites called the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). This body had draconian powers and criminalised building workers for taking industrial action, including over safety. The Labor Party Government has changed the ABCC’s name but kept its anti-building union and building worker functions.
Not surprisingly, after the ABCC was established deaths on building sites increased. According to the building union, the CFMEU:
Deaths in the construction industry increased, from 3.14 per 100,000 workers in 2004 [before the ABCC was set up] to 3.86 in 2005, 5.6 in 2006, 4.48 in 2007 and 4.27 in 2008.
Last year construction company Leighton Holdings said that the death toll on building sites was trending up, possibly to 100 by 2014. The death rate in the UK, Leighton pointed out, was half that in Australia because there they have a safety code and it is enforced.
That was what the battle at Grocon in Melbourne was about – unions, whose number one priority is safety, being able to enforce safety standards. Without that power the bosses will cut safety corners and risk lives in the name of profit no matter how many inspectors there are and how big the fines.
The idea that the bosses are interested in safety, or can be, without the immediate threat of workers cutting off the flow of profit by walking off unsafe sites, is nonsense.
The idea of involving the bosses in safety is madness. Having the bosses in charge of safety is like putting John Howard in charge of refugees. Only union representatives on site can help really enforce safety. Only the ability to walk off the job without loss of pay over safety issues can really force the bosses to take the issue seriously.
If building unions had the power to enforce safety standards and to strike over safety the death and injury rates would fall dramatically.
The response of the 1% (the Labor Party, the Liberals, the bosses, the Courts, the police) with their hundreds of constabulary, injunctions, court claims for millions and vilification of union leaders and members when the CFMEU tried to enforce safety at the Grocon Myer Emporium site in Melbourne shows where their priorities lie – profit before people.
The stakes are high. It will take a long and bitter campaign of strikes and wildcat action to force the building bosses in Canberra and elsewhere to take safety seriously and to save lives.