Construction workers are worried for their safety after tradespeople from two sites tested positive for coronavirus.
The warning comes as industry figures fear a shutdown of the sector that employs 9.2 per cent of the workforce could lead to catastrophic job losses.
Two known cases were confirmed on Melbourne construction sites over the past week, ramping up pressure on government and health authorities to alter guidelines around the definition of ‘essential service’.
The first emerged from a University of Melbourne student accommodation development, when a Kane Constructions subcontractor tested positive after returning from England.
Days later, Multiplex’s Melbourne Square project entered temporary shutdown after a plumber was diagnosed with the virus, with 20 colleagues now self-isolating.
On the condition of anonymity, workers on a construction site in the city’s north also spoke to The New Daily of “concerning” conditions that were rectified by CFMEU officials who attended last week.
In one instance, an Alimak (construction elevator) driver on Multiplex’s $100 million La Trobe University student accommodation project requested a 1.5-square metre partition to minimise his risk of contracting the virus.
The partition forced up to four lift passengers at a time to cram into a one-square-metre box.
Additionally, 150 workers and subcontractors defied social distancing measures when they sat four to a table during lunch breaks.
A Multiplex spokesperson declined to address the above cases but said the construction firm is committed to cooperating with unions and governments to ensure workers’ safety.
“This is a challenging new environment, and we are doing everything we can to be proactive around managing COVID-19 on all of our sites, including La Trobe,” she said.
“This includes providing guidance around personal hygiene and social distancing in line with government advice, creating staggered start times, promoting use of outdoor space for breaks and workforce communications, and reorganising lunch sheds.”
Why is Australia’s construction sector still open for business?
A Victorian government spokesperson said the construction sector will continue operating for the foreseeable future.
But she said any possible changes to working arrangements would be at the discretion of the state’s Chief Health Officer.
“Construction is continuing in Victoria, in accordance with requirements set out by the Chief Health Officer, including social distancing,” she said.
Master Builders Victoria (MBV) and the CFMEU entered “unprecedented co-operation” last week to ensure the sector avoids a crippling lockdown.
Both parties are lobbying for 24-hour construction worksites to stagger workers’ shifts and mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
CFMEU Construction and General National Secretary Dave Noonan said further restrictions that halt building activity would prompt mass layoffs, compounding job losses already seen in the retail and hospitality sectors.
“Economic uncertainty is a big factor weighing on our members’ minds, and as an industry that employs about a million Australians, they have already seen the consequences of mass stand downs,” Mr Noonan told The New Daily.
“The Chief Health Officer hasn’t made that recommendation. If they do, we’ll do whatever we can to support our members, and there are redundancy schemes specifically designed for these circumstances.”
The Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) also issued a range of guidelines to help guide ‘best practice’ amid restrictive pandemic social distancing measures.
DHHS advice suggests workers maintain “physical distancing of 1.5 metres … wherever possible”, take “meal breaks outside”, use “hand sanitiser at site entrances and exits”, and “[minimise] the use of shared tools”.
But smaller builders believe they are exposed as they have fewer resources to enforce social distancing and provide sufficient personal protective equipment.
Builders Collective of Australia president Phil Dwyer told The New Daily MBV has “forgotten” the concerns of 14,500 small to medium-sized builders.
“I have no idea how smaller sites will adhere to social distancing measures,” Mr Dwyer said.
“We’re very concerned about builders not adhering to the government’s call for action on [mitigating the spread], because none of us want to get this virus or be found guilty of spreading it.
“If the government called for a lockdown, those contracts are put on hold because of force majeure – but if the industry remains open, smaller builders could end up in court if they do not fulfil those contracts.”