As the October 24 hearing approaches for the Perth-Mandurah railway tunnel construction workers — who are being prosecuted by the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) for taking "unlawful" industrial action in February 2006 against the sacking of the health and safety union representative — new research has exposed "critically high" levels of injury in the construction industry.
The October 2 West Australian reported that following negotiations with the Construction Forestry Mining and Engineering Union (CFMEU), the ABCC is dropping charges against 15 workers who were "not involved or only distantly involved" in the strike, and downgrading charges against a further four workers. Full charges are proceeding against the remaining 92 workers in the Federal Court.
The 92 were employed by Leighton Kumagai, and face fines of up to $22,000 each for allegedly contravening the Howard government's 2005 Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act, which restricts the rights of workers and unions in the construction industry.
Eighty-two employees are also being charged with breaching an Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) order instructing the CFMEU and all the workers employed on the rail project "to not take industrial action", for which they face further fines of up to $6000 each. The case is the first under the Howard government's IR reforms in which workers are being prosecuted individually for taking collective action.
The 12-day strike by 400 workers was demanding the reinstatement of elected shop steward Peter Ballard, who was sacked by Leighton Kumagai for insisting that workers should not be forced to work excessive hours, in bad weather or in dangerous conditions. In the eight months preceding the dispute, the union reported injuries resulting from the collapse of reinforcements in the tunnel, and that 13 workers had received electric shocks requiring hospitalisation.
A new report by the Australian Safety and Compensation Council (ASCC) examining work-related injuries between 2002-04, showed that 10% of work-related hospitalisations were in the construction industry. A September 25 media release from the CFMEU states that the deaths and injuries of construction workers are likely to have increased since 2004 following the October 2005 establishment of the ABCC, which restricts the ability of unions to ensure safe working conditions.
CFMEU national assistant secretary Martin Kingham said, "We suspect the number of work-related hospitalisations for construction workers from 2005 onwards will be much higher. It is the unions who do the enforcing, so if you have laws that are designed to weaken workers' rights, then it follows you weaken health and safety and have an increase in death and injuries as workers cannot refuse to work on unsafe jobs".
According to the CFMEU's records, from January to June, 33 reported deaths occurred in the building industry, an increase from 27 people in 2005-06 and 19 people in 2004-05.