The latest two-week shutdown of the construction industry in parts of Victoria is causing “chaos” and frustration for small business owners, who are being caught up in the vaccination debate.
Last night, seemingly in response to protests against vaccination requirements for construction workers, the Victorian government announced all construction projects in metropolitan Melbourne, the City of Ballarat, the City of Greater Geelong, Surf Coast Shire and Mitchell Shire would halt.
The shutdown applies from midnight, September 20, for two weeks, with the exception that workers can respond to an emergency, or perform essential or urgent work.
“The new restrictions create chaos for my business,” Dale Cheesman, director of boutique building company The Melbourne Builder, tells SmartCompany.
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“Our overheads are hefty. We have bills for machinery, warehouses, and offices that keep coming,” he explains.
The Melbourne Builder specialises in residential construction projects, and so the shutdown will throw off project deadlines and timelines, which has a flow-on effect on clients, many of whom are in temporary accommodation while the team works on their homes.
Cheesman also feels disappointed that the state government has made “such a drastic call”, while giving businesses in the sector so little notice. He was notified at 9pm last night that he and his team would not be able to work this morning, he says.
While he stresses that for the most part those in the construction industry have been lucky over the past 18 months, as they have been able to continue at some capacity where those in other industrious can’t, he still “suddenly felt helpless”.
“My team relies on the business to provide them with an income, and I feel like my hands are tied,” he says.
He would have liked to see the state government offer a more well-thought out approach, with separate rules for business operating smaller-scale, residential businesses.
“But instead, they created a blanket rule, and we are treated as if we have a worksite with 1,000 people on it when in reality, we have under 10 workers.”
The vast majority of Cheesman’s employees have already had at least their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, he adds, “and we are still having to shut down”.
“Appalling behaviour on site and on our streets”
In a statement, Premier Daniel Andrews said the state has seen “multiple outbreaks” of COVID-19 linked to the construction industry.
This is because many construction workers work across multiple sites and travel relatively long distances to work, said the government.
“Concerns have also been raised, and remain, about the sector’s compliance with public health measures and directions.”
However, the shutdown also followed protests that turned violent in Melbourne’s CBD yesterday, as construction workers and others gathered outside the Victorian branch of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU).
The group was reportedly protesting the requirement for workers to prove they have had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by Thursday, September 23, in order to access their worksite.
Following the announcement of the two-week shutdown, more protests are underway in the city today.
While the statement from the Premier doesn’t specifically mention the protest, it does stress that the vaccination requirement remains in place, meaning workers will have to have at least one jab before returning to work on October 5. All building sites will also have to demonstrate compliance.
Construction workers can get priority access to vaccine appointments.
Victorian Minister for Industrial Relations Tim Pallas pointed to “widespread non-compliance” in the industry.
“We’ve been clear: if you don’t follow the rules, we won’t hesitate to take action,” he said in a statement.
“We have seen appalling behaviour on site and on our streets, and now we’re acting decisively and without hesitation.”
The vaccine debate
In a statement, Dave Noonan, CFMEU National Construction Secretary, said the union condemned yesterday’s protest “in the strongest possible terms”.
“This crowd was heavily infiltrated by neo-Nazis and other right wing extremist groups and it is clear that a minority of those who participated were actual union members,” he added.
“These are not actions of people who care about their workmates and the construction industry.”
Elsewhere, in a tweet, the Victorian State Secretary of the CFMEU construction division called the protesters “drunken facist un-Australian morons”, adding that it’s because of them that other construction businesses will not be able to continue work.
Those drunken fascist un-Australian morons are the reason construction workers will be sitting at home and not getting paid for the next 2 weeks
— John Setka (@CFMEUJohnSetka) September 20, 2021
The Australian Council of Trade Unions has also condemned the protest, stressing that high vaccination rates are “the only way for us to get out of lockdown”.
For his part, Cheesman says the vaccination debate “is a tricky one”.
Personally, he has been encouraging staff members to get their jab, so everyone can get back to their lives, as well as their work.
“But, at the end of the day it is their decision,” he says.
“I wish, as business owners, that we were provided with more information around the vaccine, so we can educate our staff.”