Union organisers from the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) effectively blockaded the site of the $300 million Bald Hill Wind Farm project last Wednesday with the result that workers and contractors were told not to come to work on the day.
THE CFMEU continued to cause disruption at the Bald Hills Wind Farm site at Tarwin Lower last week.
But why should we care?
As pointed out by the CFMEU’s main organiser, Gareth Stephenson, hardly any locals, or even Gippslanders for that matter, are among the 170 people working on the $300 million project.
The local shire council was promised better than that by the developers, Bald Hills Wind Farm Pty Ltd, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mitsui Co. Australia.
In fact local jobs were supposed to be part of the social and economic dividend of hosting this massive industrial plant of 52 turbines, each more than 100 metres high, in an otherwise tranquil, beautiful, coastal farming area.
They haven’t delivered.
And that’s not the only thing we are being dudded on.
Rate revenue is shaping as the next battleground for the community.
While the wind farm is expected to pay around $140,000 in shire rates annually, those sharing in $500,000pa income to host the turbines may pay less in rates, as will neighbours whose farms have been devalued by the project.
It could be a net loss for the shire.
A spokesman for the wind farm company, Matthew Croome, now says, by way of explanation, that “of course, many of these positions require specialist skills that may not be available in the local area”.
It’s a comment that doesn’t wash with either the CFMEU or locals.
The fact is that there are dozens of concreters, riggers and other highly-skilled construction workers living in this area, and many other locals working away in the mining and construction industry, who would have loved the opportunity to come home to their families and work locally for a year or two.
How hard did they try to recruit locals? We don’t know but it was spectacularly unsuccessful.
Council no help
How hard did the local shire council lobby on our behalf to make sure Bald Hills P/L and their principal contractor, Senvion, delivered on their promise to provide local jobs?
The answer is, they didn’t!
“We have not had any discussions with Bald Hills re their staffing choices and our general practice is not to do so with businesses unless they request support,” said a shire spokesperson last week.
“While the jobs there might have been taken by imported labour (possibly with specialised skills), there is of course an on-flow to the local economy through their living expenses while they are here.”
The council has not made an effort to quantify the economic impact or the net result from rates.
It doesn’t surprise anti-Bald Hills campaigner, Don Fairbrother, who believes the council doesn’t have the experience or the resources, let alone the inclination, to represent the community properly on such an enormous undertaking.
“The planning department has only visited once, to my knowledge. They’ll reinstate Buffalo-Waratah Road but what about the damage to other roads while trucks are bringing material in from Fish Creek and the like. Who’s going to fix them up?” Mr Fairbrother asked.
He’s also not surprised the developers have made no effort to employ locals.
Keep unions out
The unions believe that Bald Hills P/L, and their principal contractors, have floated their own workers in from outside the area, including from Tasmania, so that they can keep union involvement on site down to a minimum.
It is understood that the developers are terrified about the Bald Hills project turning into another Wonthaggi desal disaster.
That’s allegedly what was behind the assault of a union safety officer at the site two weeks ago – the management and some of the workers want to keep the unions out but the CFMEU wants in.
And that’s why they turned out in force last Wednesday, March 26, with dozens of organisers and their cars located at the entrance to each of the worksites, effectively stopping entry by contractors and workers.
The union called their presence “a CFMEU action”, not a blockade.
“No one turned up today to try and get on the site,” Mr Stephenson said.
He said he understood that they had been instructed by management not to go to work on the day but, instead, to turn up for a meeting at the Tarwin Lower football ground, which was held at about 10.30am.
Much of the day was then lost on Thursday due to light rain in the morning.
“It’s not a dispute between opposing unions,” Mr Stephenson said.
“There will be people who will want to characterise it as a demarcation dispute but it’s not. We are in discussion with the other unions about demarcation but these issues will be sorted out.
“They actually share our concerns about the working conditions on this site.
“There is a palpable atmosphere of fear and intimidation here which we see as coming from certain management personnel on this job.
“We believe these standover tactics and intimidation culminated in a worker being assaulted.”
He said he believed that the two people allegedly implicated in the assault may have been workers on the site, not members of an opposing union, but that management was knowingly complicit in the actions which led up to the assault.
Normal work practices
“There’s no way they would have done this on their own,” he said.
“This is about management on this job wanting to be able to complete this job without normal scrutiny and without regard to safety and normal workplace representation.
“Our presence here today is about our ongoing efforts to get management to acknowledge their responsibility to have a construction project which is safe and which also allows normal workplace democracy.
“There can’t be any clearer message to a workforce when a person is assaulted that if you don’t want to be sacked or for this to happen to you, you keep your mouth shut and get on with it.
“We believe that, at worst, management were co-conspirators in the actions which led up to the assault on the safety officer, or at the very least, have not responded to the incident in a responsible manner.
“That is the point of our action here today, to get management to agree that they need to come to the table and talk to us about the concerns we have.
“To date we have had some discussions but none that we could describe as meaningful.”
He also said that there hadn’t been the usual discussions between the developers and the unions that there would normally be prior the start a project of this scale.
He said it was clear they wanted to keep the unions out.
The spokesperson for Bald Hills P/L Matthew Croome said he could not comment in the alleged assault until the Victorian Police, Fair Work Australia and Work Safe Victoria had finished conducting their investigations.
Mr Croome agreed to provide a statement on levels of local employment, involvement by local contractors and impact on the local economy.