Who’s got your back? (John does.)

December 22, 2005 / Guest post by Edward Smith.

by Edward Smith

I had been thinking for a while I would write an email about India but I have recently had an experience that was far more intense than my trip to India. I recently did a day’s labour for a roofing company.

I had been looking for a summer job and a family friend, let’s call him Bob, (In the interests of not getting sued for defamation I have changed all the names in this) mentioned that he knew someone at a labour hire company and gave me their number. I gave them a ring and found out it would be removing asbestos at 5am in Redcliffe (about an hour from my home in Indooroopilly). I was a bit concerned about working with asbestos but was told it was all being done by the state government so I could rest assured that they would be taking every necessary safety precaution. My first thought was that this was the same state government that had supplied the Queensland Police force with defective bullet proof vests and as such could not really provide me with much of a guarantee. Thanks but not thanks.

Later I thought that they would get some other mug to do it who would agree simply because he needed the money more. The end result: poor man works with hazardous materials and rich man stays at home. I couldn’t console myself with the injustice of it all so I decided I would go ahead with it. This is the moral justification I thought I would use in my autobiography, in fact I just really needed some money.

Everybody in the construction industry must have a blue card which is just a certificate to say you have done a course on workplace health and safety. Some of the questions were as challenging as “When using explosive powered devices you must be wearing earphones and protective eyewear, Yes/No?” and “The Workplace health and safety committee’s role is to represent the employer in court cases, Yes/No?.” The craziest thing however, was when I inadvertently clicked on the restart button. The test was done at a computer terminal and after completing one of the three segments I was returned to the beginning. I told one of the guys running the testing centre that I had restarted and he asked me where I was up to. I told him “Oh about question 15 of part one.” I had to restart a new test with new questions and incredibly the guy running the place just whizzed me through all the questions, giving me the answer before I had even finished reading them. It would have been a lot funnier if I hadn’t been thinking of all those labourers not knowing which fire extinguisher to use on an electrical fire.

Later that day, blue card in hand, I rang back the labour hire company and said I really was not happy about working with asbestos. They told me I had nothing to worry about because it was all being carried out by a government company, that as I had had no experience they only offered me a job as a favour to Bob and finally that even if my concerns about asbestos were legitimate it was simply too late to find a replacement. So I agreed to at least work for a day so they could find somebody else.

When I arrived the first surprise was that this was a government company in as much as Toyota could claim to be a government company. They were just some random company that had put in the lowest bid for a government tender.

I was provided with a mask that did not seal properly. The night before I had read that even a 5 o’clock shadow was enough to break the seal of the mask and endanger your life. I asked if they had any other masks. They said they would get me a proper one if I hung around longer. When I said that that wasn’t good enough they told me not to worry because they had been using these masks for years, the asbestos was only 1% and was bonded with another material and they guaranteed that it was all safe. I asked who guaranteed it and they said John Wilson. I then asked who John Wilson was and they said he was the owner of the company. At that point I was reminded of what Tommy Raudonikis, a retired football legend, said at a trade union rally earlier this year.

“I’m not a doctor or a lawyer, or flyin’ them jet planes but I know one thing for sure: I know shit when I see it.”

Despite all that I was reassured when someone pointed out the Q-build inspector. Although the work was being subcontracted to a private inspector there would be a government inpector looking over us the whole time. I figured that he would surely not let us work in unsafe conditions even if only to avoid liability.

The job basically involved removing the sheets of insulation from a government building, bagging them and then vacuuming the area afterwards.

0500: The foreman comes to speak to Trevor, one of my colleagues. He asks him where Brett is today. It turns out that Trevor had driven about 25kms out of his way to pick up Brett at 4am this morning. Brett came out and told Trevor that he was not working today because, wait for it, he had to give his bank details to the labour company. Apart from not making any sense he had not only stuffed around the construction company but had not bothered to ring Trevor and tell him he needn’t bother with the 50km round trip at 4 a.m. which he was only doing as a favour.

We started at about five thirty.

0600: The moment the sun peaks out we in our Hazmat coveralls begin to sweat. As we are ripping the roof out we will be in direct sunlight the whole day. I shudder at the thought of the midday sun.

0615: We run out of the Hazmat bags. All hazardous materials, including Asbestos have to be stored in these really thick, tear-proof Hazmat bags. After 45 minutes on the job we run out and are supplied with generic garbage bags which needless to say are not exactly tear-proof. No word from the government inspector. When I say that we should be using the right equipment the foreman says that they really want to but it’s just too expensive.

0700: The crane arrives. I suggest to one of the other workers that we should probably have hard hats now. He then passes this on to John Wilson. The answer comes back from John Wilson that we don’t have enough hard hats. If only there was a single hardware store in South East Queensland. John Wilson’s advice is to stay out of the way of the crane and rest assured that the foreman will tell us when the crane is overhead. Needless to say I look up several times to see the crane carrying a full load of scrap metal very close to my unprotected skull. My guardian angel, the government inspector, looks on silently. Fatly.

0830: Michael, another guy from a labour company, has vanished. Nobody has any idea where Michael has gone.

0900: I ask John Wilson where I can get a drink from. He tells me to use the hose in a rather scornful tone of voice as if I am asking a stupid question. I ask him which hose he’s referring me to and he points at a hose that has been sitting in a skip covered with generic Woolworth garbage bags leaking asbestos. I ask if there might be somewhere else to get a drink. He groans and says to go and use the bubblers around the corner as if I was being really unreasonable.

1215: Michael returns. Michael had been to court that morning and at no time as he was getting out of his Hazmat gear, walking off the site and walking past the foreman and the owner of the company did he think he might actually tell anybody he was not going to be around for a few hours. So desperate is the construction industry for work that he still doesn’t get fired.

1230: We break for lunch. I ask what we will have to do after lunch and there seems to be no consensus at all. The foreman, ultimately the only person whose opinion actually matters, tells us we will probably only be around for an hour afterwards, despite this we down tools for an hour rather than just working through and taking an early mark.

1235: As I’m having lunch I start asking some of the others whether they’re concerned about the dangers involved here.

“Mate, it’s guaranteed,” one of them assures me.

“By who?” I ask.

“John Wilson. The guy who owns the company.”

Fair enough.

“And mate, it’s a government contract so the inspector won’t let anything slip through.” Adds one of the other workers.

“But the government inspector didn’t say a word about us not having hard hats under the crane,” I say.

“Yeah cause the inspector only cares about whether the asbestos gets taken out. He doesn’t have to worry about us,” he replies.

“So then he’s not going to do anything about our health and safety.”

A brief contemplative silence punctuated by a timely zephyr. “Yeah but it takes 50 years for it to have any effect anyway,” another colleague said.

“Says who?” I asked.

“John Wilson.”

Fair e-fucking-nough!

1236: I tell the foreman I won’t be coming back tomorrow.

1300: As the sun beats down on our exposed selves I realize that I’m not anywhere near as hot as I should be. I suddenly understand why the Bedouins, Arabs and every other person in the desert dresses the way they do. Completely cover yourself up in thin fabric and you don’t get half as hot.

1400: As I’m leaving the site I think about those poor bastards staying working for this creep who won’t even protect his own staff. After years of complaining about compulsory student unionism at UQ I realize that unlike UQ the construction industry actually needs far more union representation.

One response

  1. AJC

    Edward should have his own blog (e-mail doesn’t count). Another fabulous missive from the Nedmaster General. Apt since the New York transit srike is well underway and making waves. Yes, these workers need unions. Probably more so than Australian undergraduate students, but I don’t believe it needs to be an either/or proposition. Collective representation and bargaining institutions are important for democracy, especially since relatively few of us would want to rely on John Wilson’s good graces (I’m making an assumption here but…). And well may we say God Save the Queen, because nothing will save the Government Inspector!

    December 22nd, 2005 at 12:12 pm #

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