The powerhouse of shame

June 13, 2009

The morning air is crisp and the smoky air wafts over the strike camp in the shadow of the imposing Hazelwood power station in Victoria's La Trobe Valley. We receive a warm, country welcome from two emergency services officers (ESOs), Mick and Brian.

We quickly learn that they are two of the twelve workers who have been on strike for nine weeks over pay and conditions.

The workers are members of Energy and Mining division of the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU). They are in dispute with Diamond Protection, a contractor for International Power, the UK based owner and operator of the notoriously filthy and dangerous Hazelwood power station.

In 1997, the Kennett government sold the station to a private consortium for $2.3 billion dollars. Hazelwood was due to be decommissioned in 2005. But the Labor state government now says it will operate to at least 2027.

The ancient plant is based on 1950s technology. It is no wonder Hazelwood is now a major safety hazard and is considered the developed world's most polluting power station.

The Mining and Energy Division of the CFMEU presented Diamond Protection with a log of claims in October 2008 that would bring the Hazelwood ESO's pay and conditions in line with ESOs at the nearby Yallourn and Loy Yang power stations.

Diamond Protection refused, instead offering a miserly 4% increase. This leaves the ESO base rate at $19.32 an hour — far less than the $26.89 an hour a trainee cleaner can earn for day shift at the plant.

Emergency services workers are a highly specialised group and only exist in the power industry in Loy Yang, Hazelwood and Yallourn power stations. All these sites were once run by the government owned State Electricity Commission (SEC).

Brian remembers the height of power production in 1974, when the SEC employed 26,000 workers in the Latrobe valley, a far cry from today.

To appreciate how insulting the offer is, it's useful to understand what an emergency services officer actually does.

Before the SEC's privatisation in the mid-90s, there were many positions responsible for security, first aid and casualty, firefighting and emergency rescue at Hazelwood.

After privatisation, these positions were rolled into a new title, known as the Emergency Services Officer. The number of safety workers employed fell by one-third in the Latrobe valley's power stations.

Mick and Brian blame the privatisations for their predicament and for the health and safety concerns at Hazelwood.

Private power industry contractors were encouraged to compete against each other. The push to drive down labour costs saw safety standards nose-dive. Privatisation led to mass layoffs and a rise in fatal accidents.

Thousands of workers were forced to leave the Latrobe valley in search of work. Some never worked again.

High unemployment led to the closure of many small businesses. The area still hasn't recovered fully.

The erosion of safety standards in the ageing Hazelwood plant is a constant worry to the union. The concerns over health and safety are so grave that the CFMEU has asked an independent expert to conduct a full assessment of the Hazelwood power station and its emergency response capabilities.

The striking ESOs worry that they are being replaced by scab labour who lack the full training and knowledge about the station and its hazards. Each day, these workers watch as the "pretend ESOs" convoy past their strike camp.

Mick and Brian speak with pride about their work and say they are prepared to continue the strike to protect the safety of their co-workers and the broader community.

The smell of the barbeque drifts through the camp. About a hundred workers join the Hazelwood 12 for lunch. Other contractors appear to offer their support. Visitors from Argentina film greetings to be sent back home to struggling workers there.

We leave as the afternoon sun is waning. One thing is certain — the Hazelwood 12 know that they are not alone.

If you want to offer your support, just ask the friendly locals the way to Hazelwood power station, ten minutes outside Morwell or phone the CFMEU Morwell office on 03 5134 3311.

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