A global conference of health and safety representatives from BWI affiliates, held in Perth, Western Australia, has underscored the importance of unions as a necessary precondition of safe work. The conference, which was co-hosted by the Construction and General Division of the CFMEU, gave participants an opportunity to share good practice on a range of issues, including manual handling, mental health, asbestos and other cancer-related diseases and the role of health and safety representatives, inspections and committees.
“There was broad agreement amongst participants that while Government can play a crucial role in strengthening workplace safety, the most important thing for keeping workers safe on the job is having trained worker representatives empowered to take action on safety,” said Gail Cartmail, Assistant General Secretary of Unite the Union and Deputy President of BWI. Cartmail, who is co-chair of the BWI Global Union Safety Representatives Network, chaired the proceedings.
A workshop on mental health noted that the construction sector has one of the highest rates of suicide and mental health issues, arguing that prevention needed to take a holistic approach by looking at all conditions of work, including days and/or hours of work, wages and other conditions. Jorgen Gullestrup, CEO of the MATES in Construction Queensland described how they had developed a model that aimed to identify and assist workers through an integrated program of training and support.
Another workshop led by Sugio Furuya of the Asian Ban Asbestos Network identified the Asia-Pacific region, particularly Indonesia and Vietnam, as targeted countries for the industry to offload remaining asbestos, with lobbying efforts are rising in those countries. At the same time, it was agreed that where national bans have been difficult, regional or municipal bans are an effective way of continuing to build campaigning momentum.
On the second day of the conference participants visited a number of construction sites to observe good practice in action, including the Forrestfield Airport Link project under Salini Impregilio and a shopping centre.
A highlight of the conference was the chance to join a CFMEU picket line to condemn an Australian construction company allowed a German backpacker with no training to work on a high-rise construction site. Tragically 26-year old Marianka Heumann fell 13 storeys to her death in 2016, and yet construction company Hanssen have since been slapped with over $100,000 in fines for refusing to allow the union onsite. Wreaths were laid outside the building in her memory.
The conference ended with a visit and tour of a CFMEU training centre, providing the participants a good opportunity to understand how the union prepares construction workers to undertake safe work. In addition, the participants reflected on how the practices seen on the construction site visits differed from those in participants’ home countries. They observed the stark contrast in hazard identification between the sites with good industrial relations where the union was respected, and those without.
The day ended on a high note when CFMEU C&G National Secretary Dave Noonan announced that the anti-union “Ensuring Integrity” Bill had just failed to pass the Australian Senate, leaving unions a bit of breathing space to keep on doing their job of ensuring workplace safety.