Why is there a community protest at the Queensland Children’s Hospital site in Brisbane, Australia?
Workers are demanding a union enterprise bargaining agreement with the main contractor, Abigroup, and a clause to ensure that all workers employed by subcontractors on the site are paid the rate for the job. Almost all the workers on the site are employed by subcontractors rather than Abigroup, and rates for similar jobs with different subcontractors can vary by up to $10 an hour.
How did the dispute start?
It started on 6 August when a gyprocking subcontractor failed, leaving the workers employed by it in the lurch. Trade unionists had been complaining on this point for months. The November 2011 Construction Journal, produced by the CFMEU union’s construction division, reported: “Contractors are cutting each other’s throats to win [work at] the Abigroup site at the Queensland Children’s Hospital... They are using tricks to reduce their price... Some of these plasterboard companies are taking it one step further, using multiple subsidiary companies under their banner in order to divide up the workers’ entitlements...”
How has Abigroup responded?
Abigroup is owned by the giant Lend Lease corporation, which reported $500 million profits for the year to 30 June 2012. Its chief executive Steve McCann was paid $7.33 million for the 2012 financial year, a 66% pay rise. It has also recently had to sideline four top executives for financial misreporting.
Abigroup says it is losing $300,000 a day. Until 4 September Abigroup refused to talk or try to find an agreement to enable work to resume. It looks like Abigroup underestimated the workers and thought the dispute would quickly collapse. Now Abigroup has at least started talking. The workers want talks and a speedy agreement.
Why are the workers’ demands important?
Winning decent pay and conditions on construction sites is difficult, because jobs come and go. The same battle has to be fought again on every new job.
When union organisation is weak or broken in construction, then even on big sites workers are employed by lots of different subcontractors, or by labour-hire companies, with no security if the company fails. Similar work is paid different wages. Workers are taken on as “self-employed” so that the subcontractors can avoid their responsibilities for sick pay, superannuation, etc. Fly-by-night subcontractors go for quick profits and take no responsibility for the finished job.
The workers want the new hospital to be built to good standards and on time. They also want to hold the line for decent negotiated standards in the construction industry.
Aren’t the workers breaking the law?
Injunctions have been served against officials of the CFMEU, the BLF, the ETU, and the Plumbers’ Union to stay away from the site. The workers are therefore continuing their dispute as a community protest. Injunctions have been threatened against protest organisers. The great majority of the workers have no legal proceedings against them, and are not likely to have. The dispute will continue, whatever the legal proceedings, until Abigroup settles.
Australian law is exceptionally reluctant to recognise workers’ rights to withdraw their labour. By contrast, France’s constitution, for example, has the right to strike written into it as an individual right for every worker. France has, by most measures, the world’s highest labour productivity.
Workers are not slaves or serfs. The right to withdraw your labour when conditions become unacceptable is a basic right.
How can we find out more, or support the workers?
The workers welcome messages of support which show other workers are with them in in the long battle for a world where the working class controls economic life, and where workers enjoy the right to a secure livelihood, worthwhile work, decent conditions, and good social provision — rather than labouring for the profit of a wealthy few.
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