Protestors storm CBD after construction industry shutdown

By Brendan Rees & Rhonda Dredge

Melbourne’s construction industry was been shut down for two weeks after crowds of protesters rallied in the CBD over two days in September.  

Chaos erupted outside the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) office at Elizabeth St on September 20 after tensions reached boiling point over a ban on tearooms and vaccines to be mandatory in the industry. 

The protests continued on September 21, with thousands marching through the CBD and over the West Gate Bridge, causing major disruption. 

Staff at Melbourne Town Hall were asked not to leave the building as a precautionary measure during the first day of violence as police faced off with the hundreds of protesters who marched through the CBD and tried to storm the union building.   

In a statement the CFMEU said it “condemns in the strongest possible terms the attack on the CFMEU Victorian branch office and the mindless acts of violence perpetrated by members of this mob.”

“It is clear that a minority of those who participated were actual union members,” it said.

The violent protests came after anti-lockdown protestors descended in Richmond just days earlier, with roads to the CBD barricaded off and public transport shut down.

City of Melbourne small business portfolio lead councillor Jason Chang, who runs a Japanese grocery store and restaurant in the CBD, said these circumstances meant many small businesses had to close during a time “of much-needed revenue”.

“It was quite a tough [time] because people couldn’t get access to most of the restaurants in the city,” he said.

And the tragic death of a tradie on September 21 has fired up emotions.

The tradie jumped from a building in Spencer St, according to press reports, after he was told to down tools on the Monday of the announcement.

The government claims it was forced to make the move after seeing multiple outbreaks linked to construction and many in the industry say they saw the move coming. 

Local residents in the CBD have been among those who have been complaining about breaches in safety at building sites.

In the week leading up to the announcement, a picture appeared in the Daily Mail of a building site in the CBD showing a number of workers not wearing masks.

The picture, according to the foreman working at the site, was taken by a local.

He did not want to be identified but said he’d been having trouble with complaints in the preceding week.

On one occasion police turned up over a complaint that one of his workers was on the footpath without a mask.

“He’s just taking a breather,” the foreman told the policewoman. The worker had been using heavy equipment. The policewoman believed the foreman and left the site.

He said the constant complaints by locals were making his job doubly difficult. 

“It creates another thing I have to look after,” the foreman told CBD News. “The woman had been taking photos and implicated me to my boss. I’ve been ticked off.”

On the day of the Daily Mail article, building companies received notification from the state government that inspectors would be visiting sites.

According to a press conference held on that day, a building site tearoom is “the most dangerous place” for contracting the virus.

Fifty compliance teams were deployed to ensure that workers were wearing masks and social distancing. Some visited construction sites in the CBD. 

“Most people don’t like to be a dobber,” a resident told CBD News, “but, in this case, the workers may be risking the health of colleagues, people passing the site, and maybe their own family members.” 

“What frustrates me is that vaccinations are free and available in so many places and people still don’t get one.”

The foreman said it was his belief that construction workers in the CBD had not contributed to a mass outbreak.

But, according to figures released by the government in September, 13 per cent of Victoria’s cases could be traced to building sites. The Box Hill outbreak at the Panorama construction site has led to around 200 cases. 

The government has now mandated vaccination for all construction sites. 

An amnesty has been put in place so that a limited number of workers can attend construction sites in order to shut them down safely.

All sites will be required to demonstrate compliance with Chief Health Officer directions prior to reopening – including the requirement for workers to show evidence to their employer of having had one dose of the COVID- 19 vaccine before they return to site on October 5. •

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