Framework of Flesh: Builders’ Labourers Battle for Health & Safety
Humphrey McQueen
Ginninderra Press. (Port Adelaide)

I am very interested in this topic, because at an early age, I was confronted with the hazardous circumstances in which building workers were forced to accept.
For most of his working life, my father worked in a butter factory. In the early days, the factory was situated in Grenfell St, Adelaide, opposite the site of the Da Costa Building. During his lunch breaks in the late 1940s when the Da Costa building was being erected, he told me that he saw two building workers fall to their death. Evidently a total of six workers died during the construction of the Da Costa Building and this building was only eleven stories high.

As a student in the 1960s, I was given a copy of a pamphlet that protested against the very poor safety standards that existed in the building industry at the time – riding the hook, lack of safe scaffolding, cranes being operated by unqualified employees or who had handicaps that should have prevented them etc. I was horrified, but told by many adults that the document was probably exaggerated and libellous. After being a science and health educator and then developing a career in OH&S, I realised that tragically, the pamphlet accurately reflected the dangerous working conditions that building workers and building labourers (Bls) have been forced to accept if they wanted work.
The title of the book is taken from a quotation by an Australian labourer, Charlie Sullivan, who was an activist with the Australian Shearers' Union in 1886:

“The names of kings 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”.

He includes such topics as scaffolding, working from heights, danger of structural collapse, collapse of trenches, exposure to hazardous dusts (eg asbestos and silica), chemical hazards, exposure to temperature extremes and provision of toilet accommodation). There is also a statiststical overview of some of the injuries and death occurring in the industry since European colonisation.

McQueen's book is not intended to be an OH&S handbook, however. The author has identified the major problems and gives readers an overview of the many hazards faced by construction workers and the history of the tragedies that have occurred and the struggles BLs have had to undertake to improve working conditions.
He also provides an analysis of the resistance building labourers have faced in achieving improved health and safety standards in their working environment. In this regard, the author is critical of construction employers and employer organisations for putting obstacles in the way of introducing best practice; law makers for not introducing effective laws and the judiciary for not being strict enough when sentencing employers who are criminally negligent and for allowing double standards in the administration of the law.

The fact that the current Federal and state governments are watering down OH&S laws as they seek to unify them is a reminder that this has to be an ongoing struggle. McQueen includes the issue of the Australian Building and Construction Commission which was established by the Howard to put industrial pressure on the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). The ALP promised to abolish this anachronistic body if it was elected at the 2007 federal elections, but this promise has not been honoured.
Currently, Ark Tribe, a South Australian BL is facing 6 months imprisonment for failing to divulge to the ABCC details of OH&S meetings he organised while working on a construction site at Flinders Medical Centre.

In arguing his case, McQueen touches on a number of important issues. He attacks the attitudes of many employers. As an example, he has this telling quote from a Sydney builder in the late nineteenth century: “A contractor does not take a job to slaughter men, but at the same time he has to make a living”. The employers as a class do not intend to injure their workforce, although their profitability depends on practices that lead to injury, and repeatedly so.

Many BLs would consider that this attitude exists amongst many employers even today. McQueen asks why this attitude is considered as acceptable. He argues that BLs face inequality before the law when work related deaths occur because society does not consider that employer negligence that leads to worker deaths should be viewed as murder. (This, of course, is not consistent with society's view of negligent or drunk drivers who cause deaths on our roads). As a result, many employers who have caused the deaths of their employees because of their negligence do not need to even go to court.

McQueen includes a very apt quote in relation to this:

“Commercial talk-back hosts howl against courts that let teenage burglars walk free, but are silent on the featherweight punishments for executives who breach OHS laws. Instead, the presenters sympathise with the corporate killers, portraying them as persecuted by union bosses”

This issue raises the whole concept of industrial manslaughter, which has received some media attention in recent times.
McQueen shows that as far back as 1833, the British government had rejected manslaughter as the appropriate charge against an employer whose negligence caused death as it would create a serious impediment to the investment of capital.

He outlines how the ALP has refused to support this concept in law except in the ACT. The ALP governments in NSW and Victoria have strongly resisted the the introduction of such a measure. However, currently in NSW there is a provision for unions to initiate prosecution against employers where criminal negligence has led to severe injury or death. It goes without saying that the Rudd Government has rejected such a concept in the formulation of its new national OH&S legislation; it is also watering down much of the more effective laws already in place in Australia's states and territories.

Nick Xenophen, when in South Australia's Parliament several years ago, failed when he tried to introduce industrial manslaughter legislation. It goes without saying that the even more conservative political parties are strongly opposed to the concept.

Those working in OH&S know the political hurdles that are being put in place to stop this approach from ever becoming law. The author discusses part of this matter in the context of class analysis. He raises a pertinent question regarding industrial manslaughter:

“Will the law ever consider killing, when done for profit, as a murder? Well, … it probably is conceivable that working class pressure is on a reform-minded legal profession - over a further 200 years – could extend the rule about the unintended consequences of a felony to treat some OHS violations as real crimes”.

Even with the increase of progressive lawyers sympathetic to workers, Mc Queen believes there are impediments to progress and sees even the more progressive lawyers as agents of capitalism.

He sees neo-liberalism since the 1970s has triumphed over many radical lawyers who were fighting to have killing for profit deemed as murder. He concludes that all this will only change when working people emancipate themselves through seizing the capitalist state and establishing new forms of power.

Throughout the book, the author identifies some union leaders who have betrayed their members in relation to OH&S. I think one of the main reasons why OH&S is not taken more seriously is that many union leaders do not regard it as a priority – especially those who become ALP MPs.

Many may be surprised to know that the ACTU OH&S Committee recommended to the ACTU leadership that OH&S be a vital part of the Your Rights at Work Are Worth Fighting For, the campaign to resist Howard's WorkChoices legislation in the lead up to the 2007 federal elections. Sadly, apart from the issue of asbestos, OH&S was not high on the campaign agenda. Even then, much of this relied on the courageous fight of Bernie Banton, who while dying from mesothelioma, successfully fought for improved compensation for victims of asbestos dust and to have the drug Alimta made available for mesothelioma sufferers.

Despite the huge numbers dying from work related causes each year, there is not a fully resourced campaign like the one that helped defeat Howard in 2007 that promotes good OH&S. The ACTU does have a campaign to combat Rudd's and Gillard's dilution of current legislation. It has the title of Reject 2nd Rate Safety Laws, but as it is not well resourced, there are many active unionists who do not know that it exists.

At the 2009, I successfully moved at the ACTU OH&S Conference that the OH&S campaign have the slogan: Your OH&S Rights at Work Are Worth Fighting For. Originally, I suggested that the word “Too” be at the end of the slogan to link it to the campaign against WorkChoices. An ACTU staffer suggested that I leave it out because it implied criticism. The slogan was not accepted by the ACTU Executive.

I would recommend that all unionists, union leaders and all those who value the human rights of all working people (including the Bls) read this book. It could help to build a greater understanding of the need for vastly improved OH&S and welfare conditions in Australian workplaces. It may even lead to a greater resolve on the part of union leaders, lawyers, judges, and employers to achieve this aim.

When all is said and done, health and safety for workers is a basic human right.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock, Retired Unionists Association (SA Unions), OH&S & Human Fights Activist, former OH&S Industrial Officer PSA/CPSU