Frameworks of Flesh: Builders' Labourers Battle for Health and Safety

In September 2004, twenty-three-year-old father Nathan Park was killed on a Victorian construction site in an accident that could have been “easily avoided”.  He died when tonnes of concrete were poured on top of him.  The construction company, Melbourne Transit, failed to implement procedures that a Victorian county court judge said were “blindingly obvious”. She fined Melbourne Transit $100,000. But the owner had already put that company into liquidation and so avoided any penalty. He also avoided $180,000 in entitlements owed to building workers.  And he avoided $3.5 million allegedly owed subcontractors. 

But shortly afterwards, the owner was operating again as a different company.   At a site in Heidelberg, for example, all the Melbourne Transit workers were retrenched, and then taken as employees of the Phoenix company, now called, appropriately enough, Hardcorp.  Hardcorp then had all the previous business but without those unwelcome liabilities of unpaid entitlements and that small fine for Nathan’s death.  It is such a valuable thing, the corporate form.

Some $300,000 was collected by the union to pay into a trust fund for the education of Nathan’s infant son. But the Howard government established a royal commission, then a building industry task force, then an Australian Building and Construction Commission – the ABCC – all with severe punitive powers, all more concerned with prosecuting unions for closed shops and removing union banners from building sites than in prosecuting unsafe employers.  It demanded of employers that, if a union delegate held a meeting that went beyond the end of the designated lunch break or smoko, because they he was collecting money for the widow of someone killed on a building site, all the workers had to be docked four hours pay.  Otherwise the employer would be prosecuted. 

And in the final irony, the ABCC took the CFMEU Building & construction division to the federal court, and last week had the court fine the union $85,000, because when Melbourne Transit was revived as Hardcorp, a union organiser at Heidelberg allegedly put pressure on Hardcorp to re-employ three workers on the project, and then shut down work when it refused.  The ABCC never pursued Melbourne Transit/Hardcorp of whatever it might be called next week for its cowboy behaviour.  But it pursues the union like a pack of hyenas.

Humphrey McQueen’s book captures in detail the many aspects of the industry that this recent tragic anecdote illustrates – its danger, its union, the roles of capital and the state.  Humphrey is a prominent historian who has published a range of books including A New Britannia; Social Sketches of Australia; Aborigines, Race and Racism; Australia’s Media Monopolies;  and Tom Roberts. This book, Frameworks of Flesh: Builders' Labourers Battle for Health and Safety, focuses, more than anything else, on the dangers of the industry.  It documents over a century of hazards and what euphemistically get called “accidents” – though not by Humphrey.    Open any page and there is a fair chance you will find an account of one or more workers’ deaths in circumstances that sometimes made me blanche.  I knew from reading the statistics, and from stories like that of Nathan, that the industry was perilous, but it’s only when you are hit with it page after page that you can properly appreciate just how treacherous it is.  And I must say that I was surprised to discover how recent a lot of the safety standards have been established – for example, it was only in the late 60s and early 70s that hard hats became entrenched in many areas.

The life threatening environment of the building industry helps us understand the militancy of unions in that industry, as it helps explain the same in the coal mining industry.  Humphrey’s book tells us a lot about the union, known throughout most of the period of the book as the Australian Builders Labourers Federation.  Indeed, it is part of a three-part history that was commissioned by the union, through what is not the Workplace Research Centre at Sydney University.  But you can tell when you read it that the union has had no say on the content of the book.  While it tells of the many struggles that the union, its leaders, organisers, delegates and members have mounted in defence of workers’ health and safety, of how it would provide or raise funds for injured workers or widows, it is a warts and all account that also refers to the failings of the union.  Of one official, Humphrey says ‘he drank his way through his salary and kick-backs until dismissed in the 1940s. The unionists’ call for its officials to be appointed inspectors was useless if those organisers were corrupt’ (p49).  And he is unafraid to mention the failings of its members, whom he castigates at one stage for horseplay and childish initiation rituals (p73). 

He talks about the problems the union faced in providing any form of income support or social insurance in the depression, describing how

Labouring men from the Salvation Army refuge on Bourke Street got a few shillings by posing at the National Art School in Russell street; their gaunt bodies provided students with exercises in skeletal form, not displays of muscle.

But he also talks of the support the union received from other groups such as the Lidcombe Workers Health Centre, which was crucial in dealing with for example some asbestos issues.

There are some lighter moments.  For example, as many of you may know, the union’s motto was ‘Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win.’  Humphrey describes how the union journal included a page called

“Dare to Cook”, its first food column drawing more responses than any earlier item. The aim was to immortalise the barbeque as a democratic institution while “improving the quality of what goes down the digestive tract of the BL.”

He describes some of the recipes, which I suspect might fall into the ‘do not try this at home’ category, and then says:

The lesson was: what you eat today, struggles tomorrow, or, as one stalwart put it: “Once you’re filleted, you never get you backbone back.”

But there are not many light moments as Humphrey uses the history of safety in the industry to help expose the bare bones of how capital operates when it is when left unfettered – something we have seen in a different manifestation in the current global crisis exemplified, if you saw last night’s Foreign Correspondent, by the bizarre case of Iceland. 

The barbarism of unfettered capital is especially evident when it takes its corporate form, both because the corporation is the perfect vehicle for those of no morality  (as we saw with the Melbourne Transit/Hardcorp case), and because the corporation itself has no moral sense, so that even an individual capitalist or executive who might have a positive moral code – and there are such people – cannot in the end resist the logic of profit.  Humphrey points out that, in the nineteenth century:

While ideologues were portraying capitalists as autonomous individuals, the controllers of productive property knew better and oversaw the expansion of their capitals by aligning three forms of collectivism - joint-stock, limited liability and the corporation.  (p267)

Ultimately granting corporations the fictitious status of a “legal person” (p267).  The upshot, as Humphrey points out, is that if a worker is maimed or killed in dubious circumstance, individual on-site proprietors may be vulnerable but corporations and their executives enjoy “de facto immunity” (p268)

Humphrey also refers to the battle the union faced against those who campaigned against proper benefits for sick and injured workers – not just the companies but also, in 1973, the doctors, saying 

In response to the profession’s selfishness, the ABLF black-banned jobs for medical practitioners. The universal scheme [Medibank] became law in 1974, despite a barking-mad campaign from doctors and the corporate providers of insurance (p219)

which I remember and which reminds me of the campaign presently directed against Obama’s health care reforms.

Humphrey also talks about the role of the state, sometimes of advances in response to pressure from the unions, but more commonly of acquiescence to the interests of capital.  In recent years, we have seen this acquiescence most clearly in the creation and operation of the ABCC.  The ABCC has existed on a series of lies, most publicly, to my observation, about a supposed 9.4 per cent increase in construction industry productivity that has arisen from its activities that has generated a 5 billion dollar boost to national welfare.  This 9.4 per cent figure was originally based on data that had been incorrectly entered and not checked – and then when the error was exposed, the error became a lie as the ABCC and its highly paid consultant firm sought to cover up the error by saying it was just an ‘anomaly’ and somehow the 9.4 per cent figure was calculated on some other mysterious basis.  In fact when you look at productivity growth in the industry, it’s been weaker than many other industries since so called ‘industry reform’ commenced.  The last six years of labour productivity growth, under the ABCC and its predecessor the Building Industry Task Force, have been the second poorest six-year period in terms of productivity growth since the mid 1970s when the data start.

Although the ABCC has a special place in Humphrey’s heart, and in mine, his criticisms over the role of the state extend over the whole period.  He shows how the Victorian authorities had a “major crackdown” through a “dedicated field force” applying a “zero-tolerance approach”. But

“Zero tolerance” meant that an employer who had broken the OHS law got a piece of paper telling them to improve. Only if the firm failed to comply did the VWA contemplate a prosecution. In the war on drugs, “zero-tolerance” is more than a caution through the mail. The favouring of corporates is stark through the opposite reactions to two white powders - asbestos and cocaine. The building fibres can kill in every case. The drug rarely does. People are in prison for life for peddling cocaine but not for profiting from asbestos during the decades after executives knew it to be murderous… (p252)

It is this sort of thing that leads Humphrey to entitle his final substantive chapter ‘killing no murder’ – that is, it is not murder if it occurs in the pursuit of profit.

There is much to commend about Humphrey’s book.  He has a lovely turn of phrase – for example, he makes strategic use of alliteration

‘I am aware of the difference between scrambling up a scaffold and scribbling in my study’.


‘Injuries and deaths around scaffolding have been so persistent that building workers could be forgiven for associating “scaffold” with place of execution. After all, the Elizabethan hangman Thomas Derrick gave his name to a crane.’

He makes good use of literary and poetic allusions.  It is thoroughly researched.  It is clearly written.  But most of all, it has a compelling subject matter.  Not all would agree with him.  I wouldn’t say that I agreed with everything he said.  But it is an important book, about a subject matter that is all too easily forgotten in times when unions are under attack for defending their members interests.  I commend the book to you and I have pleasure in inviting Humphrey to speak to it.

David Peetz
23 September 2009