BLF - Framework of Flesh
This link will take you to a site which features:
an Overview, List of Contents, Samples of the text, Information on ordering the book and several related links.

Builders’ labourers battle for health and safety

by Humphrey McQueen

2,690 words


The hope of the world
Foreword      “A red armband view”
What follows

Part One – Dangers high and low

Introduction    :     Scaffolding

Chapter 1   19th century: Free for all

Chapter 2   1900-1950: A hard half-century

Chapter 3   1950-2000: The harder they fall 

Chapter 4   21st century: Frameworks for fear

Chapter 5   Hazardous knacks

Part two – Disease, dirt and discontent

Chapter 6   Occupational health

Chapter 7   Amenities

Part three  -   Helping hands

Chapter 8   Benefits

Chapter 9   Compensation

Part four – Injustice within the law

Chapter 10  “Killing no murder”

Epilogue      “High aims and aspirations”

Further references

The hope of the world  

The union movement is idealistic in its essential arts by widening the scope of benefits derived from its ever-expanding usefulness.

The betterment of the conditions of the workers has been brought about through organisation. A union constitutes a school for the working class, wherein they learn self-reliance, learn their rights, privileges, opportunities, as well as their possibilities.

The union instills thoughtfulness in its membership, and broadens the mental horizon, thereby bringing hope and cheer to the hopeless and cheerless.

The union imbues its members with a longing for a better and brighter future by increasing wages and diminishing the hours of toil.

The union does antagonise, and strives to abolish many things that are, and advocates and tries to inaugurate changes which should, and will, be made in the future.

Increased wages mean increased opportunities to live a life in harmony with the high aims and aspirations of the union movement.

The union has made possible progress not only for the working people, but advancement in many other directions – morally, socially, and intellectually – and is traceable to the existence of the organisation of the workers.

The object and aims of the union movement and the realisation thereof have been the dream of the sages and seers, and the prophets of the past ages.

Every new demand for better physical protection of the workers ensures a great ideal development for a future generation.

B. A. (Ben) Mulvogue, Secretary, Victorian Branch of the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation, Builders’ Labourers’ News, 24 December 1915 .

A red armband view

No sooner were convicts ashore at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788 than they were forced to clear land for buildings. Others assembled a pre-fabricated house for Governor Arthur Phillip. In May, they laid foundations for his official residence. The prisoners, meanwhile, huddled in hollow trees or beneath cabbage-tree palms. Their labours established the place that the exploitation of building workers continues to play in the expansion of capital. The gulf in housing conditions was but one mark of the inequities that had sent petty thieves into exile while “the atrocious criminals remained in England .”[1]

Historians perpetuate that injustice by praising “ Macquarie the Builder”. Governors issued orders: convicts did the heavy lifting. In the mid-1930s, the German Communist poet, Bertolt Brecht, pictured a worker asking,

And Babylon , so many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times?[2]

Ten years earlier, an Australian labourer, Charlie Sullivan, knew the answer from his fifty years as an activist, having taken out the first ticket in the Shearers’ Union at Wagga Wagga in 1886:

Not one word is written of the thousands of workers who toiled in the heat, in the cold, and in the rain, who cut through rock and blasted channels, who reared great walls and buildings, not a word of the lives lost, of those who toiled with the crushed fingers of their calloused hands, dripping blood into the concrete, or staining steel. It has been thus from the time millions of straining naked slaves built that magnificence which was Babylon , and those monuments which are known as the Pyramids.

The names of kings and warlords are handed down in manuscripts and in books to after generations, but few ever think of the great and humble army whose sweat and blood are mingled in the concrete and bricks as surely as if the walls were built over a framework of human flesh.

They will remain unhonoured and unsung till workers write the histories that are taught in our schools.[3]

The challenge remains to retell our past from the experiences of that majority. This book offers a red armband view of one of their unfolding stories.

The construction trades have their own connection to story-telling and to investigating the past. In the Middle Ages, householders had historical scenes painted or moulded on the fronts of their dwellings. From the Latin word historia for story-telling came our term “storey” for each level of a building. “Historia” itself had been derived from the Classical Greek for learning by inquiry. A framework of flesh brings together narratives about battling for health and safety with an investigation of why resistance by the capitalists has been relentless.

The neglect of Sullivan’s “great and humble army” was repeated in the early 1980s when a history war swirled around the site of the First Government House, demolished in 1846. A 1917 commemorative plaque had not mentioned the convict workers. In 1968, the land became a car park but the space was too valuable to leave empty. Excavations began in 1983 for a 38-storey office block. Work came to a halt after labourers unearthed foundations laid in 1788.

In the wake of Green Bans, no politician dared to erase the ruins of a First Fleet building. By then, convict forebears had become fashionable. In 1989, the State government accepted designs for a plaza to skirt a 227m. office complex known as the Governor Phillip Tower . The plan included the Museum of Sydney which boasts of not presenting history for only the victors.[4] That claim was valid to the extent that homage is paid to the Cadigal (Euro) people who had occupied Sydney Cove in 1788. The workers who supplied Government House with its “framework of human flesh”, however, remain “unhonoured and unsung”. Convict-era tools are displayed as curiosities, not as extensions of human ingenuity. Even worse, the workers on the Governor Phillip Tower are ignored along with the injuries they suffered. The class bias at the Museum is shown by its neglect of the capacity of labourers to keep pace with the science of construction as pre-stressed concrete and steel replaced hand-moulded bricks.

By contrast, A framework of flesh will put the daily doings of labourers front and center, as often as possible in their own words. Their organisations are further evidence of their creative capacities. The shenanigans of a few officials do not block the light from the hundreds of thousands of Australians who have laboured around construction sites since 1788. As Mary Gilmore wrote in Old Botany Bay:

Shame on the mouth
That would deny
The knotted hands
That set us high![5]

The book shows working people remaking themselves, individually and collectively, while they built this country.

Taking sides
This study of occupational health and safety ranges across 200 years. That expanse is secondary to the basis on which out past and future are understood as a struggle between capital and wage-labour. A framework of flesh is objective because it is anchored to the laws governing the accumulation of capital. The hazards, like the claims for compensation, are experienced within the power relations between Messrs Construction Capital and the workers who must sell their capacities in order to exist. In that system, speed-ups are as relevant to the rate of exploitation as they are to the levels of injury. As a result, worker control has been crucial to improving OHS.

In this contest, I take the side of the workers as a class. That commitment does not oblige me to defend each labourer, still less to excuse every union representative. When finding fault with labourers or their officials, I am aware of the difference between scrambling up a scaffold and scribbling in my study. A comparison of the premiums for insuring a demolisher and a librarian in 1967 gives one measure of that gap. Covering the risks faced by the labourer cost $2.45 a week against 30 cents for the likes of me.[6]

How, then, are we to judge the labourers?

The criteria applied below are drawn from the proletarian principles set down in 1915 by an early secretary of the Victorian Branch of the BLF, Ben Mulvogue, and reprinted prior to this Foreword. No one can live up to those qualities every hour of every day, which is why Mulvogue stressed the necessity for education. Moreover, every educator is re-educated through the process of educating others within the organs of the working class. Changing our world and interpreting the changes we make are parts of a single activity. A framework of flesh is offered as a contribution to those practices.

I have worked long and hard at this project, and there are two more years’ effort needed before I can complete the plan outlined below in “What Follows”. Yet, I know how much easier my tasks are than those facing any labourer. Ninety years of so-called unskilled labour by my parents paid for the education that allows me to enjoy the privilege broached by Mark Twain:

I have done all sorts of intellectual work, but I am prepared to do the most arduous intellectual work for a small reward, because I know that when I am tired of it, I can always take up the pick and shovel for recreation.[7]


A framework of flesh is the opening installment from researching builders’ labourers and their unions. This volume takes up matters vital to those workers: their safety, health, amenities, compensation and the class bias of the law. Although the investigations glance back to convict times, the account gathers pace around the 1870s.

Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) concerns are far from the whole story of builders’ labourers. Disputes over scaffolding and asbestos never happen in isolation, but are linked to the struggles to limit hours, to prevent speed-ups and to improve wages. Those demands are as much part of health and safety as is a Portaloo or a scaffolding inspector. Hours and wages will be taken up when writing about the union as an organisation in an account to be called We built this country.[8] A further installment will explore the composition and behaviour of rank-and-file labourers and their officials, titled Weird Mobs and Nomad Tribes.[9]

A framework of flesh is divided into four parts with ten chapters summarised below:

Part One - Dangers high and low  

Chapter 1.   19th century: Free fall
The chapter sketches the deathtraps of an industry unregulated by the state and largely unchecked by organised labour.

Chapter 2.   1900-50: A hard half-century
The chapter documents the rate and range of injuries, the employers’ resistance to Scaffolding Acts and to adequate inspection, and the effort by the Australian Builders’ Labourers’ Federation to overcome both while educating a membership with high levels of churn at a time when reinforced concrete presented new hazards.

Chapter 3.  1950-2000: The harder they fall
Injuries boomed along with the economy on high-rises and mining projects. The collapse of Melbourne ’s Westgate Bridge took 35 lives in 1970. Self-criticism from a handful of employers did nothing to stem the labourers’ assault on managerial prerogatives over on-site safety and conditions. That surge of worker control led to the ABLF’s deregistration in 1974. By 1990, all States had revised their OHS Acts to place a nominal responsibility on employers to ensure safe workplaces.

Chapter 4.  21st Century: Frameworks for fear
This chapter examines the place of OHS in the on-going effort to destroy the Construction Division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union through the 2002-3 Royal Commission and the granting to its successor the police powers comparable to those against non-state terrorists. Those laws deprive officials of most rights-of-entry while trumpeting the ability of market forces to reduce injury levels, which remain 2-3 times greater than among the rest of the workforce.

Chapter 5.  Hazardous knacks
To understand why the building trade has been the cause of so many deaths and so much disablement, we need to examine the minute-by-minute experiences of categories of labourers. Chapter five presents snapshots of three hazardous forms of labouring – by demolishers, hod-carriers and dogmen. A chronological approach tracks the persistence of Dodgy Bros and accounts for the disappearance both of the hod and of riding the hook. Demolishers and dogmen had the highest number of fatalities. Dust exposed demolishers to respiratory diseases which killed them decades later; hod-carriers also died in falls while survivors limped away with industrial rheumatics.

Part Two – Dirt, disease, and discontent

Chapter 6.  Health and diseases
For every labourer killed on sites, nine more die from work-related diseases. This chapter begins by criticising the paucity of research into health and safety, before surveying silicosis, asbestosis, poisons, dermatitis, hearing loss and skeletal damage. The discussion then shifts to provisions for inclement weather and the dilemma of dirt money before ending with yet more resistance from employers to regulating the risks they impose on labourers.

Chapte r 7.   Amenities
A seventh chapter sketches other aspects of building sites that affect health and safety, from lavatories to hot lunches. The effort to improve amenities will be examined through the provision of sheds, food and water, both hot and cold. The policy of pursuing dirt money and disability allowances to compensate for bad conditions is re-considered. The chapter concludes with five battles to civilise conditions: constructing the national capital at Canberra and the Victorian Electricity Commission in the LaTrobe Valley in the 1920s; the Civil Construction Corps during the First Pacific War; infrastructure for resources projects in Queensland , and, finally, high-rises during the 1960s. Although amenities are discussed separately from health and safety, they are connected in practice.

Part Three - Helping hands  

Chapter 8.  Benefits
This chapter looks at three ways in which labourers have supported each other against the consequences of harms inflicted at work. General comments on relief funds are followed by an account of funeral benefits, before ending with provisions for slow or infirm workers.

Chapter 9.  Compensation
Early reforms to compensation for injured workers came in two stages. In 1882, New South Wales followed the British parliament by introducing an Employers’ Liability Bill. The inadequacies in that approach gave rise to Workers’ Compensation Acts after 1900. The change in titles indicated that union pressure was tilting the onus of proof from worker to capitalist. The chapter follows labourers as they fought to improve compensation for the injuries discussed in the preceding chapters, culminating in the 1970s with the winning of average weekly earnings paid as soon as a labourer went off work. The conclusion recounts the resistance by Messrs Construction Capital to paying for their pounds of flesh, abetted by lawyers and insurers.

Part Four – “Killing no murder”

The tenth and final chapter looks beyond the building and construction industry to locate occupational health and safety within the needs of capital as advanced through its legal system. More than buildings rise on “a framework of human flesh”. So too do the profits of Messrs Construction Capital. The first nine chapters carry our understanding of that process to the level of generalisation. The next step is to conceptualise the evidence by asking how the il-logic that compels capital to expand also requires it to feed off human capacities. The persistence of OHS offences makes sense once located within the dynamics and structures of capitalism. The case proceeds through four phases. The first is a reminder that the harms suffered by workers are a microcosm of the violence that has nourished the accumulation of capital around the globe. The second section integrates the prevalence of workplace injuries with the mechanisms on which capital relies to expand. A third section documents the class bias in the operation of OHS laws where offences are restricted, prosecutions rare, convictions even more so, and penalties light. The account concludes by showing why “legal reasoning” premised on “contract”, “intent’, “equality before the law” and “individualism as autonomy” cannot treat OHS violations as “real crimes”, as exemplified in the failure to legislate for industrial manslaughter.

[1] G. A. Wood, “Convicts”, Royal Australian Historical Society, Journal and Proceedings, VIII (4), 1922, p. 187.

[2] Bertolt Brecht, “Questions from a worker who reads”, Poems 1913-1956, Eyre Methuen, London , 1976, p. 252.

[3] C. W. Sullivan Papers, ML MSS A2886, p. 57.

[4] Dinah Dysart (ed.), Edge of the trees, Historic Houses Trust, Sydney, 2000; Hilary du Cros, “Exposing First Government House”, Much More than Stones & Bones, Australian Archaelology in the Late Twentieth Century, MUP, Carlton, 2002, pp. 80-103.

[5] Jennifer Strauss (ed.), Collected verse of Mary Gilmore, Volume I, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2004, p. 311.

[6] C. P. Mills, Workers’ Compensation ( New South Wales ), Butterworths, Sydney, 1969, pp. 733 and 740.

[7] Extemporised by Frank Anstey from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, volume 116, 26 October 1927 , pp. 768-9.

[8] See my “Lessons from Defeat: The 1927 Claim for a 40-hour Week by Queensland Building Industry Unions”, Queensland Journal of Labour History, 3, September 2006, pp. 16-46.

[9] See my “Improvising nomads”, Journal of Australian Colonial History, 10 (2), 2008, pp. ?????; both available on this website.

Back to A framework of flesh

To Introduction: Scaffolding