Bosses’ dirty tactics force workers into unsafe conditions

A card left by  the family of Ashley Morris, one of two workers killed at the Eagle Farm Racecourse when a concrete slab fell on them on October 7.
In memory of Ashley Morris, one of two workers killed at the Eagle Farm Racecourse when a concrete slab fell on them on October 7. Complaints about safety had been made just days before they were killed.

Do you feel safe while you are at work? Do you think your bosses care about your physical and mental wellbeing?

The growing reality seems to be that more and more bosses do not care about the wellbeing of workers, and the larger the business the worse it seems to get.

As of October 11, 132 workers have been killed at work in Australia this year. The industries of agriculture, forestry and fishing, transport, postal, warehousing and construction make up the bulk of those statistics, claiming 74% of these workplace fatalities.

The Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) said on October 12: “It has been a heartbreaking week for this union and the entire construction industry, with three workers killed on sites in four days. The tragedy has been compounded by the revelation that had the companies involved enforced simple safety measures, both incidents would have been prevented. This is why we need strong unions, and why the [Malcolm] Turnbull government should support our work in creating safer workplaces.”

This statement followed the deaths of Ashley Morris and his workmate at the Eagle Farm construction site in Brisbane on October 7. The two workers were killed when two nine-tonne concrete slabs fell into a pit they were standing in. Days before the deaths, two workers walked off the site over safety concerns. They were convinced someone was going to die on the job.

On October 10, Marianka Heumann, who was in Australia on a working holiday from Germany, fell to her death on a construction site in Perth where she had been employed as an unskilled labourer. Since Marianka’s death, WorkSafe has confirmed it had received five complaints about the site since construction commenced in late 2015.

On October 5, 300 workers walked off the job over safety concerns at the Viva Energy owned refinery in Geelong. In the previous week there were seven safety incidents, with WorkSafe inspectors coming out to the site four times. The next day, the two unions involved in the Viva Energy dispute were injuncted off the site by the Supreme Court and the workers were left without their official representation and organisers.

Luckily Geelong community members were able to step in to help run the picket and support the workers at the refinery.

When the two workers were crushed, Green Left Weekly spoke to the workers at the refinery picket about what had taken place in Brisbane. One worker commented “It is only a matter of time before a similar incident happens here”, before going on to share horrific stories of workers who had died on other sites in Victoria in the past.

Despite workplace safety often being a matter of life or death, the underhanded tactics and legislation from bosses and politicians are resulting in more dangerous work sites and creating additional barriers for unions to ensure safety for their members on a site.

Wedge tactics are often used by the bosses to pit worker against worker. At the Viva Energy picket, offers of paid training and threats of the sack and $22,000 fines were used to get workers off the picket. Surveillance of the picket — by private security employed by Viva Energy, CCTV cameras and individuals, presumably bosses and supervisors, using their phones to film those participating in the picket — was used.

As well as the intimidation on site, bullying and abusive tactics were used on social media as community volunteers attempted to spread the word about what was happening at the picket. Interestingly, a number of these online trolls were commenting from Facebook profiles that had only been created during the dispute. However the tactic worked and one community member received a 24-hour ban after reports from these fake accounts resorted in a “breach of Facebook’s community standards”.

Unsurprisingly, the role of the mainstream media was quite disappointing with the Geelong Advertiser, the local Murdoch publication, reporting on day three that the picket was finished and all the workers had gone back to work. This was reported as fact, based on a comment from the Viva Energy CEO. No journalist actually bothered to come to the site to verify whether those claims were true.

Workers were sure that the full page, full colour ad for Viva Energy, two pages after that misinformed article, had nothing to do with the sloppy journalism whatsoever.

Before the dispute even began, the Geelong Refinery Action Group Facebook page posted a photo of an individual sitting in a car in front of Geelong Trades Hall taking photos of workers going to an after-hours meeting at the hall. When challenged, the person refused to say why he was taking photos and drove away.

Despite three deaths in four days, Malcolm Turnbull’s government is on the warpath against unions. It is slandering them, particularly the CFMEU, so they can ram through their anti-union Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) legislation, which will result in 1 million workers having fewer freedoms and legal rights than people who actually commit crimes.

This legislation passed the House of Representatives on October 18, and there is a fear that if passed through the Senate, this legislation will lead to increased workplace deaths, particularly in the construction industry.

It is critical that young activists, whether they are currently working or not, have some understanding of basic workplace pay and conditions, and of the critical role that unions play in ensuring safer workplaces and better pay and conditions for workers overall.

The Young Workers Centre at Victorian Trades Hall is taking steps to educate young workers on their rights, but it needs to be the responsibility of all young activists to arm themselves with this knowledge and to pass it along to our co-workers, classmates and friends.

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