Building workers on picket line

Issue 

Building workers on picket line

By Geoff Spencer

MELBOURNE — Police were used to break a picket at a Department of Planning and Development (Ministry of Housing) building site on March 16. The picket was put on the Crown Street, Flemington site because between 40 and 50 workers are owed $1.7 million in wages.

This is the second picket of a ministry site in an ongoing campaign by the combined building trades unions.

In October 1992, the builder DS&C operated by Mario Conte, a major contractor to the ministry, went to the wall. In the month preceding the collapse, the ministry issued show cause notices stopping payments until declarations were signed guaranteeing payment to the subcontractors.

Conte approached the ministry, giving oral assurances that appear not to have been pursued in writing. Payments were resumed to Conte without any guarantees and when the company went under, the subbies were not paid.

Several subbies then approached Jo Sierra, branch manager for contract administration and were assured that DS&C was owed large sums and that this money would be available to pay them. The subbies were then encouraged to keep working. This money has never been paid out.

All Conte-ministry sites were then black-banned by the Victorian Trades Hall Council until the subbies can negotiate a settlement with the ministry. Housing minister Rob Knowles simply refuses to talk with the unions or the subbies.

Last month, the ministry contracted another builder, Peter Pirovich, to finish the development, leaving the unpaid building workers out on the street. In some instances, subbies have lost small businesses and family homes as a result of this scandal. The building workers believe that Conte is operating elsewhere.

Another question is why the ministry did not pursue a claim against the Housing Guarantee Fund, which is meant to ensure that this kind of situation does not arise. DS&C was insured for up to $14 million with the HGF, yet no claim has ever been made.

The DS&C affair demands investigation as it involves considerable federal and state funds in an important program (Better Cities) that has been bungled.

The Crown Street building site is one of eight that have been black-banned. At present only Crevelli Street, Preston and the Flemington sites have pickets. All support is welcome.

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