||Issue No. 326||29 September 2006|
Interview: Australia’s Most Wanted
Industrial: The Fox and the Contractor
Unions: Industrial Wasteland
International: Two Bob's Worth
Economics: National Interest
Environment: The Real Dinosaur
History: Only In Spain?
Review: Clerk Off
Death Sites Under Construction
NSW Senior Deputy State Coroner, Jacqueline Milledge, catalogues a scenario that sounds like a scene from the ACCI's dream of the perfect workplace, and its fatal consequences.
BGA won a contract to construct a new water tower in the dry NSW central west by undercutting competitors by more than 13 percent.
Once there, South African principal Anton Beytell hired on individual contracts, used imported labour, paid below industry standards, and thumbed his nose at the 40-hour week.
Beytell was equally flexible on health and safety and the NSW Department of Public Works did nothing to enforce its own standards.
BGA didn't supply a Site Specific Safety Management Plan or submit a Safe Work Method Statement.
On October 22, 2002, formwork collapsed, pitching five men into 140 tonnes of setting cement.
South Australian construction worker Craig McLeod drowned in concrete and Beytell, himself, died from a penetrating blow to the head in the fall.
Three other workers - Michael Abel, Scott Wood and Stephen Molothane - were rescued from the tangle of cement and steel with "significant injuries".
The only workman who didn't fall from the tower roof, Ralph Storr, suffered post traumatic stress.
Shockingly, the coroner found, McLeod knew the job was a death trap but felt he could do nothing about it.
"Craig McLeod knew there were problems on site," Milledge said. "He had confided in his good friends Ms Brauman and Mr Quinn. He also told his brother that he had real concerns the formwork would not hold.
"Mr McLeod was in a difficult position. He was miles from home and without sufficient funds. Like others in that small community he needed work ... They should have been able to rely on the Department of Public Works and Services to manage the project properly."
The coroner heard evidence McLeod had arranged for a city crane driver, Quinn, to tip off a WorkCover inspector about the site. But, for some reason, a planned WorkCover visit never eventuated.
Milledge laid bare Beytell's disregard for workplace standards.
She found Malothane, imported from South Africa on a temporary visa, had been a virtual slave. And there was a suggestion that after being injured he was bribed to keep his mouth shut.
"Malothane slept in the laundry of Beytell's apartment on a piece of cardboard," Milledge reported. "He often worked 11 or 12 hour days, six day per week.
"His wages were non-existent.
"The treatment of Mr Malothane is indicative of Beytell's lack of ethical behaviour as far as his employees were concerned.
"Despite Mr Malothane being severely injured in the collapse, he was somehow removed from the hospital and flown back to his homeland. Mr Malothane did not want to be discharged as he was undergoing treatment.
"When he arrived home, a great sum of money was deposited into his bank account, far more than the wages owed to him. He was told the money came from Beytell's wife.
"Malothane says Mrs Beytell 'warned me not to speak to anyone about the accident'.
"On this evidence it is clear it was intended to 'buy' his silence."
She found local mens wear retailer, Scott Wood, had needed the labouring work to supplement dwindling business income. He worked a 60-hour week, without overtime or penal rates, and didn't get super, sick or annual leave.
Milledge said the isolated workers had been paid "intermittently" and didn't have enough money to sustain themselves.
"Costs were contained by instigating miserable work practices that not only deprived the workers of fair and timely recompense but also skimped on safety to the detriment of all on site," she said.
Lawyer Ian Latham, who represented McLeod's family at the inquest, said the evidence raised serious questions about moves to limit regulations and place greater power in the hands of employers, especially in regional Australia.
"These people were defenceless," Latham said. "They had nobody to look after their interests and Craig McLeod, for one, wasn't confident to raise serious health and safety concerns.
"They were employed on take-it or leave-it individual contracts that left them at the mercy of their employer.
"Like much of regional Australia, the level of unionisation and safety inspection was low. The lack of those protections led almost inevitably to this tragedy."
Milledge directed the coronial file to WorkCover to consider prosecutions under NSW OH&S laws.
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