When organisers from the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) arrived at a Brighton construction site in April 2015, they found the lunch shed had no running water or electricity and no women’s toilet. Workers decided to protest these substandard conditions by going on strike — a perfectly legal action under Victoria’s Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004.
Yet, according to Concrete Gang, a radio program presented by the CFMMEU Construction Division, WorkSafe Victoria had ticked off on the substandard conditions and considered that privacy requirements were being fulfilled if a foreperson stood guard as the woman traffic controller used the toilets.
Due to this, the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) deemed the strike action to have been a criminal offence and went as far as to threaten the woman union member “with jail if she did not give evidence”, according to Concrete Gang.
This was clearly meant as an intimidation tactic, but she did not buckle, refusing to give evidence against fellow unionists.
Tarastar, trading as BPM Built, accused the union of delaying its apartment complex project by its actions.
Federal Court judge Mordecai Bromberg found that the CFMMEU and two organisers had engaged in coercion and adverse action by organising the work stoppage. Organisers Steve Long and Gerard Benstead were individually fined $6,000 and $6,500, respectively, while the union was fined $38,000.
According to a November 13 article in the Sydney Morning Herald, “the judgment was the eighth in Victoria involving the CFMMEU since the start of the year, with penalties totaling $526,900.”
At no stage did the ABCC or media note that a woman worker had been denied her basic right to a private toilet at work.
No other workplace in Australia would accept such a set up. Given the apartment project is worth $30 million, cost was clearly not a factor.
Concrete Gang said “It’s a disgrace,” adding, “‘the rank and filers [on the site] could see that the woman was in distress about the toilet set up, at a time when the union and the industry are trying to get more women into the workplace.”
The CFMMEU has won separate women’s toilet facilities on numerous job since the late 1990s. But now it appears this right — along with many others — is under attack.
When the case was reported on at the recent Women In Male Dominated Occupations and Industries conference in Davenport, Tasmania, many women construction workers noted that they would not use the toilet if confronted with a similar situation.
Instead, they would prefer to wait until they could drive to the closest available toilet — a difficult prospect when most construction sites only have a 30 minute lunch break.
Conference attendees were also shocked that stopping work had been seen as a greater crime than the lack of toilet facilities.
The whole case is a sad indictment on the lack of progress for women workers on what is a very basic human right.
[Sue Bull is an OHS trainer in the construction industry and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]