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.
One - Dangers high and low
century: Free fall
chapter sketches the deathtraps of an industry unregulated by the state
and largely unchecked by organised labour.
2. 1900-50: A hard
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.
3. 1950-2000: The harder
boomed along with the economy on inner-city high-rises, mining projects
and the collapse of
, 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.
4. 21st Century:
Frameworks for fear
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.
5. Hazardous knacks
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.
Two – Dirt, disease, and discontent
6. Health and diseases
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.
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
and the Victorian Electricity Commission in the
in the 1920s; the Civil Construction Corps during the Pacific War;
infrastructure for resources projects in
, and, finally, high-rises during the 1960s. Although amenities are
discussed separately from health and safety, they are connected in
Three - Helping hands
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.
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.
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.
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.
A third installment will explore the composition and behaviour of
rank-and-file labourers and their officials, titled Weird
Mobs and Nomad Tribes.