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 story gathers pace around the 1870s. 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 inner-city high-rises, mining projects and the collapse of Melbourne ’s Westgate Bridge , which 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 no more than nominal responsibility on employers to ensure safe workplaces.

Chapter 4.  21st Century: Frameworks for fear
This chapter examines the place of Occupaitonal Health and Safety (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 particular categories of labourers. Chapter five presents snapshots of three hazardous forms of labouring – 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 with 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 regulations.

Chapter 7.   Amenities
A seventh chapter sketches other aspects of building sites which 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 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 onto capitalist. The chapter follows unionists 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 previous 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 violent history of capital accumulation around the globe. The second section integrates the prevalence of workplace injuries with the mechanisms that capital relies on 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 “intent’, “equality before the law” and “individualism as autonomy” cannot treat OHS violations as “real crimes”, as exemplified in the failure to include industrial manslaughter within the OHS Acts.

Occupational Health and Safety 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.[1] A third installment will explore the composition and behaviour of rank-and-file labourers and their officials, titled Weird Mobs and Nomad Tribes.[2]

[1] 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.

[2] See my “Improvising Nomads”, Australian Journal of Colonial History, forthcoming, 2008

BLF - Framework of Flesh
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