Material gain takes priority over human life
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When Phillip Hughes was fatally injured at the Sydney Cricket Ground last year, the game stopped immediately, and test matches were rescheduled. No one questioned that decision, nor should they. It reflected the human dignity of this young man and his fellow cricketers. For the workmates of fatally injured construction workers, it's a very different story. For them such a stoppage is now illegal.
Historian Humphrey McQueen, whose 'Framework of Flesh' documented the bitter 160 year struggle by building workers for better health and safety, rightly called Hughes' death a workplace fatality, and pointed out the different standards for different groups of Australians.
Tuesday April 28 is International Day of Mourning for the victims of workplace deaths, through injury or disease, and ceremonies take place around the world. In Sydney hundreds gathered in Reflection Park, near Darling Harbour, a site dedicated to such workers. Mark Lennon, Secretary of Unions NSW said it was time to pause, but also a time to be vigilant.
The NSW Government, which slashed entitlements to compensation for workplace injuries or illness in 2012, was represented by Minister for Finance and Services, Dominic Perrottet. He mouthed all the truisms, “No one should lose their lives at work... one death at work is one too many.”
In the abstract, and in the face of families and friends mourning such losses, Mr Perrottet probably meant it. His state government is not responsible for the Australian Building and Construction Commission that threatened construction worker Ark Tribe with gaol, for refusing to face its inquisition, after a stoppage over safety.
However, according to Macquarie University research commissioned by Unions NSW, the NSW cuts to compo resulted in a “24 per cent reduction in active compensation claims, with 5,000 injured workers cut off from weekly income entitlements and 20,000 long-term injured losing coverage for medical treatment... Since the cuts, the scheme has returned to surplus so quickly that employers have been given a 17% average reduction in their premiums, but there has been no return to fairness for injured workers.”
Opposition leader, Luke Foley, when speaking of the 185 Australians who last year lost their lives at work, at least hinted at the cause, “People at work are not mere units of economic production.”
Foley's statistic did not include those who died from work related diseases. According to the Mesothelioma Center, “551 Australians died from mesothelioma in 2007, the most recent public accounting of the disease. Those figures also indicated that the disease toll was increasing over time, and different medical models point to a peak in deaths from mesothelioma coming somewhere between 2014 and 2021... A study of 600 mesothelioma patients in the UK and Australia revealed that 1 in 10 retired carpenters born prior to 1950 would die of asbestos-related cancer.”
The culpability of corporate criminals at James Hardy, CSR and other asbestos profiteers has been well documented. None has been charged with murder, none gaoled, though they knew exactly what their actions would mean for those who worked under them.
We count every one
Professor Marie Bashir, former Governor of NSW and still patron of the Workers' Memorial Foundation which oversees the site, paid tribute to “all the workers who are building our country to great heights,” and cautioned, “Material gain may have taken priority over human life.”
Pauline Antony gave a face and name to the story, “I lost my husband Murray five years ago... There was negligence by the company cutting costs... He had two more weeks before his retirement.”
She painted him as a man of energy and generosity, who raised funds for charity, running marathons with his mates, but mourned that he missed his son's wedding and the birth of his first grandchild. His name, she said, was written in her heart.
The strongest message from the event is that workplace health and safety is everyone's responsibility. But for this writer, some are far more responsible than others, and their multinational corporate logos emblazon buildings around the city.
The late Dennis Kevans reflects this in his poem 'Dogman';
“A red surge foams in my ancient veins
To see the struggle of his dying breath,
My whitening knuckles grip the rail,
The blood of my class is reddest at death.
Fruit of the harvest, seasonal fall,
The dogman's blood in the barrow spill,
We count every one that falls,
We count every one they kill.”
Humphrey McQueen's “Framework of Flesh: Builders' Labourers Battle for Health and Safety” is available from http://www.ginninderrapress.com.au/
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