Construction accounts for a quarter of all workplace deaths in Australia, there would be few long-term construction workers who have not seen first-hand the terrible consequences of deaths or serious injuries on sites.
We are moving into a new era in Australia of harmonised OHS legislation. The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) does not oppose national regulation of safety standards, provided that the legislation is strong and enforcement is robust. Safety must always come before profit. We have concerns that some of the strong protections of existing legislation are being lost – especially in New South Wales – but we support the move towards more consistent OHS standards as a way of saving lives.
To achieve safety we need to have properly resourced state agencies, without the chronic pro-business bias which is currently weakening safety standards. But no theoretical, legal or bureaucratic approach to safety has a chance of working unless unions are involved. Workers know better than anyone the hazards they face on each job, and if they are prevented from freely raising safety issues with management through unions, then deaths will result. This means the right to an elected safety representative at every job and enforceable rights and protections for those representatives.
Research shows again and again, when there is a strong union presence on construction sites, with active union members, safety is better. Laws that restrict union rights to enter sites are laws that put workers in danger.
Since the Australian Building and Construction Commission laws were passed in 2005, the number of deaths per 100,000 workers has increased, and we are back in the terrible situation where on average, one worker is killed each week on a construction site in Australia. The ABCC’s obsessive focus on reducing union presence on construction sites has led to terrible consequences for safety. The growth in sham contracting has further affected safety as head contractors pass risk down the contractual chain.
Even employers are starting to admit the current system is unacceptable and that the number of deaths is unacceptable. The union works with responsible employers to improve safety, but will always make a stand when our members’ safety is endangered. The new national system will be an opportunity to lift safety standards across Australia. But it will only do so if safety bodies get enough resources and if the role of unions in enforcing safety standards is recognised.
Dave Noonan is the National Secretary of the CFMEU Construction and General Division – Australia’s largest construction union.
He has been an organiser and industrial advocate with the Victorian Branch of the CFMEU, and its antecedent the Building Workers’ Industrial Union (BWIU) since 1988 and held elected positions on the Branch Management Committee and the National Conference of the Union for many years before becoming National Secretary in 2006. Prior to becoming a union official, Dave was a construction worker.
He combines this practical experience with avid reading of history, politics, biography and fiction. In that most important Australian yardstick – he barracks for the West Coast Eagles.