Ten thousand workers rally for safety in Melbourne

Photo: Dannika Bonser (New Matilda)

Ten thousand building workers walked off the job and rallied in Melbourne's CBD on April 30 to protest against the poor safety record of construction companies such as Grocon.

Unionists led by the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) marched from Trades Hall to Grocon's Swanston Street building site, where a wall collapsed and killed passers-by Alexander and Bridget Jones and Marie Faith-Fiawoo.

Workers observed a minute's silence at the site, and then marched to Grocon's Myer Emporium site, where crane operator Bill Ramsay fell to his death in February this year. The march finished outside the offices of Worksafe Victoria, which has been hit by severe budget cuts by the Liberal state government.

Union leaders had expected 3000-4000 workers to walk off the job on CBD sites to join the rally, but on the day thousands more workers came from as far away as Bendigo to join the protest.

The large turnout was a defiant response to the attacks against construction unions before the rally, by Victorian Premier Denis Napthine, Melbourne Mayor Robert Doyle and the Murdoch media.

Electrical Trades Union (ETU) state secretary Troy Gray addressed the rally and called for the introduction of industrial manslaughter laws in Victoria so that companies responsible for worker deaths can be prosecuted.

The ETU's website said that in six months, CFMEU safety officers had been called to Grocon sites more than 30 times, but have been prevented by the company from entering the sites to inspect them.

Earl Setches, from the Communications Electrical Plumbing Union’s Plumbing Division, told the crowd the state government would strip $471 million from WorkSafe Victoria over the next four years, and has closed down the specialist construction unit. This means that Worksafe inspectors who have little or no experience on construction sites are sent to investigate safety issues on building sites.

CFMEU Construction and General Division secretary John Setka congratulated workers on turning up in such big numbers. Earlier, the CFMEU released a statement in which Setka responded to the attacks by the government and the media.

He said: “I am used to having mud thrown at me. It’s par for the course in this job, but to assert that the union is manipulating a terrible tragedy for our own political ends is a grave insult to me and all my colleagues who spent that afternoon pulling bricks off the victims in an attempt to save lives and being witness to a horror that will never be erased from our memories. We are rallying today because like the community, including the hundreds of people who have phoned our office in the last month offering support, we want answers and we want the government to act.”