CFMEU needs to take a lead on safety over COVID-19

April 21, 2020
A construction site in NSW, where work is continuing during the pandemic. Photo: Pip Hinman

Historically, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) has been a leader in championing stronger safety guidelines. So why did the Victorian construction division leadership collude with building industry bosses to ensure that there was no shutdown under the COVID-19 emergency?

The building industry is a critical part of the economy because it provides employment for other industries and employs large numbers of contractors and sub-contractors.

But that is no reason to ignore best practice safety policies, informed by the best available science.

CFMEU Victorian construction division secretary John Setka announced on March 25 that the union had formed a taskforce with the Electrical Trades Union, the Plumbing Trades Employees Union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, the Master Builders Association, the National Electrical and Communications Association, the Master Plumbers Association and the Civil Contractors Federation to work on “a bipartisan approach ... to keep the industry open”.

He said construction sites would adopt “extreme safety measures” to combat COVID-19, and that it would follow the national cabinet and Chief Medical Officer’s (CMO) advice. The “extreme” measures are the same as everyone else was being instructed to do — but with the proviso that it has to be done while at work, which for many work sites is not possible.

The same day, national cabinet made two about-turns under industry pressure — abolishing the haircut time limit and delaying a ban on elective surgery.

A debate ensued on the CFMEU’s Facebook page, which was heavily censored. Those defending the CFMEU leadership’s position argued that, as the officials are not immunologists, virologists or pandemic experts, they have no option but to defer to the CMO.

This was excuse making.

The CFMEU leadership are not qualified structural or geotechnical engineers, or lung specialists, but it has nonetheless taken a strong position on onsite safety, including trench shoring to prevent collapses, proper scaffolding assembly and the use of personal protective equipment and hardhats on site.

These safety policies are informed by the best available science, and union officials do not hesitate to enforce them.

Moreover, the union has historically led campaigns for stronger safety guidelines. It has never just accepted the views of government bodies that deem something to be safe. Prior to this pandemic, the CFMEU was campaigning for stronger safety regulations around silica dust exposure.

Importantly, the union leadership should not team up with construction corporations, especially without consultation with the rank and file.

It should have drawn up its own comprehensive COVID-19 policy, informed by medical science, and taken that to the membership.

Transparency needed

Safe COVID-19 policy on construction sites needs to be about more than good handwashing and extra cleaning measures. Physical distancing is difficult if not impossible on some jobs.

While these measures are being implemented to the best of the union's ability on sites where it has coverage, there are many sites that are not covered.

The union also needs to outline at what point it thinks construction sites should be shut down. At the time of writing, two people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 on construction sites. So far, there have been no clusters or outbreaks on a job.

But what if the number of infected persons in the community rises again as lockdown measures are relaxed? How many COVID-19 cases warrants a construction industry shut down?

That number is a political choice between construction industry profits and the risk of more people, including the families of an infected worker, contracting a potentially fatal disease.

Just like the federal government was pressured to make its COVID-19 response modelling public, so too the CFMEU should allow its members to scruitinise its methodology.

Lobbying to keep the entire construction industry open means that the CFMEU leadership is also keeping open non-union sites with weaker safety standards.

With masses of jobs disappearing and the federal JobKeeper wage subsidy excluding construction workers employed via labour hire agencies, it is understandable that some workers would rather risk catching the virus than lose their only income.

Why isn’t the CFMEU campaigning for casual hire workers to be included in JobKeeper? Why doesn’t it campaign for a British or German style 80% wage subsidy that covers casual labour hire workers?

Many CFMEU members believe the union leadership should be taking a stronger stand to support not only its members but the community as well.

While the CFMEU cannot unilaterally shut the industry down, it can nonetheless be a leader in safety.

As former Victorian CFMEU secretary Martin Kingham made it clear recently, such life and death matters should be aired inside the union.

The CFMEU leadership needs to be able to convince its members of its shared position with the construction bosses and Scott Morrison that continuing to work, despite a more general lockdown, is in society’s best interests.

[Zane Alcorn is a member of the CFMEU in Victoria.]

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