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Accidents, injuries and union disputes: The Cross river rail project

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CFMMEU-led protests against the Cross River Rail project conditions for workers (image via YouTube)

One of the most important labour relations stories of the year is playing out in the heart of Queensland right now, writes John Card.

IT'S WOEFULLY UNDER-reported by mainstream outlets. Over the past two months, a five-way tug-of-war between the workers, their bosses, workplace health and safety officials, and two separate unions has been going on over the Cross River Rail construction project in Brisbane.

The project itself, which broke ground in 2017, essentially involves drilling six kilometres of rail tunnel below the Brisbane River. In a rush to get the project done by 2024, CPB Contractors has been grappling with occupational health and safety (OHS) issues since work began at the site. The company is a private firm to which the Queensland State Government outsourced the Cross River Rail's construction.

There have been injuries on the project. There have also been fatal near-misses.

It is troubling that lives are being risked over what could be considered a vanity project ahead of the 2032 Brisbane Olympics. Almost more troubling is how eerily silent the mainstream media sphere is being over the Cross River project's long history of delays, workplace accidents and union disputes.     

A cursory search of the project's name online reveals an astonishing amount of potentially fatal incidents are, nominally, in the public record - but they go under-reported or downright ignored by the major news outlets in this country. To bring up the June 2021 incident where the site disgorged giant plumes of toxic silica dust for three days and nights, or the March 2017 incident after which a parliamentary inquiry was informed Cross River Rail works most likely exposed members of the community to "black lung" pneumoconiosis, or the July 2023 incident where a large steel rod fell through the cab of a forklift would only begin to scratch the surface.

The people who actually put their bodies on the line to make these massive construction projects a reality have been trying to bring more public attention and awareness to these all-too-common workplace accidents and issues for years. 

They've been trying to get management to curb the corner-cutting attitudes that cause all these hazardous situations in the first place. Evidently, all the mainstream reporting outlets in this country must think their interests lie with those of big private construction firms like CPB Contractors because they've completely stifled the ability of any of these worksite horror stories to come to public light.  

When we here in Australia see stories of tragic worksite deaths coming out of high-income Gulf nations like Qatar or Saudi Arabia and how those countries' media refuses to report incidents we rightfully call it exactly what it is: brutal repression.

Yet, right now we've got the exact same things happening right in the middle of every major city in the country and if the powers that be got their way, not much would change and the Australian public would stay none the wiser. This country has two of the exact same problems, corporate indifference to worker safety and a complicit media apparatus.

The reason that Brisbane's Cross River Rail project is the biggest ongoing labour rights story in the country is that in July, earlier this year, hundreds of tradies spontaneously walked off the site. One of their own, 54-year-old Nash Kouka, fell more than 12 metres from scaffolding erected at the Cross River Rail project's Boggo Road Station site.

Shortly thereafter, horrifying video footage taken by Cross River Rail workers of tradies being made to shimmy across a narrow wooden beam over an open 20-metre shaft without any sort of harness leaked online.

Neither Mr. Kouka's near-fatal accident nor the revelation of such grossly unfit workplace practices received much attention in the media. The Construction Forestry Maritime Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) is currently fighting tooth and nail to bring the incidents to public attention and pressure the bosses into making some meaningful changes to the way things are run.

Ever since the big July 2023 falling incident, CFMMEU reps have been trying to get as many issues on Cross River Rail sites flagged for proper investigation as possible. But they've been stymied by the efforts of CPB Contractors to impose the decidedly much less militant Australian Workers' Union (AWU) on its employees as the Cross River Rail project's official workers' representatives.

Unfortunately, the AWU of today has shown itself to be far less willing to assert workers' rights than it might once have been. Only days after the Nash Kouka falling incident, was already dragging its heels on the matter of tightening site safety standards.  

It seems that those in a position of power here are going to shamelessly do everything in their power to stop a trade union with some real teeth from fighting for its members' rights, all while a complicit mainstream press has willfully ignored the laundry list of workplace standards scandals going on behind the scenes. Any one of these should have been enough to get work on the Cross River Rail project halted for immediate inspection. 

The work a good, militant, labour union does is important: if it wasn't, big business wouldn't be pulling out every stop to try and prevent what they do. The public ought to hear that message. 

John David Card is a writer, historian and anarchist activist.

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