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COVID-19: Time the unsafe Australian Construction industry stopped demanding special consideration

On 27 March 2020, the AWU and Master Builders Australia jointly called on governments to ensure the continued operation of the building and construction industry, claiming that without it the economic knock-on effects would be devastating on a scale that would dwarf what we have seen to date.

There is no question that many dependencies on this very costly and demanding industry would cause more economic disruption, but what about safety with regard to COVID-19? Although the industry argues that it can be safe, we will argue that the industry is not suited to workers keeping safe distances. On the principle that a stitch in time saves nine, it would be better to shut down sooner rather than later because the later action is taken, the worse the grip of COVID-19 will be on the economy. Since the virus has caused the government to cease the mass migration that has driven huge expansion in the construction industry, demand has dropped, and now is the perfect time to massively curtail construction industry activity. In the meantime, will the industry take responsibility for the return home of the many temporary migrant construction workers from China and Indonesia who, unlike international cruise-ship passengers, are already onshore, virtually invisible, but numerous? And an industry worker argues that the industry is not capable of adapting to safe distance practice.

“The shutdown of the construction industry would jeopardise not just those employed directly, but the whole livelihoods of millions of Australians employed in precarious sectors like manufacturing. It would devastate nationally important industries in the building supply chain, like the $30 billion steel industry,” say the AWU and MBA.

This shows that we have become too dependent on this industry. It has an unhealthy hold on our economy, our political system, our politicians and political parties. This hold has destroyed business, industry and employment diversity in Australia, because agriculture and ordinary manufacturing cannot compete with the inflated profits of the rapidly metastasizing property development sector, which attracts finance away from other sectors.

The same industry has successfully lobbied decades for faster and faster population growth, via mass immigration, to drive demand for its product. Now the demand will dry up as immigration has been stopped, finally providing an interruption to property-development’s hold on our economy.

As well as importing customers, the industry has also exploited many temporary migrants, undermining immigration rules, safety, wages and other employment conditions. The industry may have profited, but prices have risen and standards have dropped, to the extent that buildings over three stories are now uninsurable.

The AWU and MBA argue that, “Forcing the industry’s closure would also blunt the impact of federal, state and territory government stimulus packages as infrastructure projects would immediately grind to a halt. Civil construction, in particular, must continue to build the nation and can do so safely given the nature of its sites.”

The cry of ‘nation-building’ has led to overdevelopment with disastrous drops in building standards and environmental amenity. Australians have suffered from constant upheaval and loss of democracy as government outsourced planning to developers. In the name of catering to unprecedented population growth, Australian cities, suburbs and regions have been taken out of the control of their residents, subjected to constant infrastructure expansion, road-building, traffic diversions, and destruction of loved environment.

The AWU and MBA’s line is: ”Indeed, the catastrophic threat of a construction shutdown means the whole construction industry has a civic duty to impress upon authorities it can operate while ensuring compliance with social distancing and hygiene requirements.”

How could anyone have confidence in an industry known for corrupting government at all levels, bullying, unaccountability, uninsurability, and lawlessness? This industry has seen thousands of Australians bankrupted and homeless. Multiple inquiries into its dysfunctionality have failed to reform it. It is time to stop dancing to the demands of this industry. Australia has been living beyond its means in an artificially and unreasonably accelerated growth period.

The AWU and MBA try to present a picture of reform and responsibility:

“That means everyone in the industry has to step up and be accountable. Construction companies and project managers must ensure that protocols at their site are enforced. Construction workers owe it to each other and their families to be responsible and do the right thing. This is only the only way the industry can continue working while reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission.”

Unsafe: Safe distance mostly impossible in Construction industry

An industry worker, who prefers to remain anonymous, says:

“Practising safe distance at building sites for most activities is impossible.

It is generally not safe for one person to work alone in the industry. Usually construction sites involve many people in many activities simultaneously, crisscrossing each other in small and often confined spaces, sharing narrow temporary paths and causeways.

In multi-storey building construction, hoists are used to bring people to various floors. These hoists are always crammed with people. It is not affordable to take people (or loads) one at a time.

Concreters work closely together when they lay concrete, frequently in small areas. You might have one worker using a scrider, and two others using a shovel or a vibrator, not even half a meter from each other. You will often get four or five people a couple of meters square, due to the need to act together to carry out the work. It would be hard or impossible for one person to do such work alone. It would be uneconomical for less than four or five.

High-rise work employs huge crowds of skilled and unskilled workers. It is common in the construction of a multi-storey building to have 40 steel-fixers and 40 form-workers operating simultaneously on one floor.

The nature of the industry entails very basic conditions of hygiene and shelter. Disinfection and maintenance of disinfection in such areas, where many workers are coming and going, would require a large-scale dedicated team of cleaners and supervisors with the authority to stop and start work. It would be dangerous to have such teams present on building sites.

Construction sites are scenes of intense activity, with many people interacting on many processes, helping each other. The cost of construction means that things are done as quickly as possible.

When trucks are unloaded, you often have many labourers unloading next to each other.

It is rare for one person to work alone. Generally speaking, in this industry, safety requires workers to work in pairs or in larger groups.

People are often required to work in confined space and they then need another person to assist with tools and equipment, physically handing these from one person to the next.

Transport is often shared. People habitually organise to come and go to work in one vehicle because many jobs are not accessible by public transport.
Many temporary migrants are moved in and out of construction sites in busloads from densely shared accommodation. A large proportion are Chinese and Indonesian. They often do not speak or read any English, and certainly not enough to know how to protect themselves. They tend to be insecure in their employment and visa status and are not likely to exercise their rights to safety, if they know them. These workers are like a separate population on construction sites, with whom only basic communication is possible, usually via their own foreman.

Will the industry now take steps to finance these workers’ return home?”

The AWU and the MBA say in their press release:

”In times of crisis people look to unions, industry, and government to work together. We have to show we can not only slow the spread of COIVID-19 but ensure there's an economy left when the crisis is over.”

The problem is that unions and government have been working for industry and against democracy for too long. Let’s hope the AWU and the MBA, the Property Council of Australia and all the other corporate coercers who have been calling our tune start to adapt to reality for a change.

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It would seem from the description of what is necessary in construction work in terms of the way workers are organised and moved around a given site that in this time of contagion what may be safe from the physical injury point of view will probably not be healthy from the contagion point of view.