The Victorian government will forcibly shutdown all construction sites in metropolitan Melbourne and all other locked down local government areas in response to violent protests on Monday.
The Andrews government engaged in crisis talks on Monday night with the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union, following the heated brawls outside the union’s Elizabeth Street offices in Melbourne’s CBD.
Protesters rallied against the Victorian government’s mandate requiring all construction workers to have at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose by September 27.
Victoria police deployed crowd control equipment and arrested several in attendance.
All construction sites in metropolitan Melbourne, and the local government areas currently subject to lockdown restrictions [Ballarat, Geelong, Mitchell Shire and Surf Coast] will be shutdown, effective from 11:59pm on Monday evening.
The shutdown is scheduled to last for two weeks.
If regional LGAs emerge from lockdown in sooner than two weeks, construction sites will be allowed to reopen and operate as normal.
The only permitted exception to the lockdown will be to ensure the safe closure of a site and to conduct urgent and unavoidable repairs.
Sites will only be permitted to reopen when they can demonstrate compliance with the public health orders.
Union reaction to protests
Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus condemned the violent protest that occurred outside the CFMEU office.
She blamed the protest on “extremists and conspiracy theorists” who she said were “endangering the lives of their fellow citizens.”
Ms McManus said she believed the protests were organised by people outside of the construction sector.
“We know from social media networks that the same people who were at the rallies on the weekend were asking people to come to these ones and to dress up in high vis,” she said.
“That’s not to say that there weren’t people there who were also construction workers, there were.
“But the people organising and orchestrating it were people with other motives,” she said.
Ms McManus said people at the CFMEU protest were not wearing a mask and she worried it could become a super spreader COVID event.
She blamed the industry’s shutdown on groups which she said had “undermined” health advice.
“We don’t want any industry shut down but it is a pandemic and if you can’t make an industry safe, well this is what medical experts are doing,” she said.
“This is very unfortunate, unions have worked very hard to try and keep construction safe.”
Building industry group slams government approach
The Victorian Building Industry Group of Unions released a statement criticising the government’s “unrealistic and blunt approach” to COVID regulations, saying it has undermined the vaccination rollout.
“The Building Industry Group of Unions maintains the view that the construction industry would have voluntarily reached high levels of vaccination without a heavy-handed approach,” a BIGU spokesperson said.
“This heavy-handed mandate by the Chief Health Officer, which was implemented with no notice, has only served to drive many people towards the Anti-Vax Movement.”
The group pleaded with the state government to reconsider the measures and facilitate a way to get workers back onto work sites.
“We call on the Andrews Government, Chief Health Officer, and the Department of Health to come to a sensible return to work scenario that accommodates the reality of our industry and respects the workers who have built this city.”
Bottles, crates thrown in violent protest
More than 500 people gathered outside the CFMEU’s Elizabeth Street office to protest mandatory vaccinations for construction workers on Monday.
Union secretary John Setka tried to speak to the crowd but when some in the crowd grew agitated, he asked workers, “Do you want to shut the whole building industry down?”
The protesters started chanting, “shut it down, shut it down,” and throwing insults at Mr Setka.
Tensions rose further and Mr Setka had a crate and bottles thrown at him.
Security guards were forced to take him inside and the doors to the headquarters were locked.
Mr Setka told 3AW on Monday that he believes the CFMEU is being unfairly targeted for decisions made by the Victorian government.
“We’re virtually being blamed for everything which is totally untrue. All we’ve ever done is try and keep our industry working safely,” he said.
On Monday Premier Daniel Andrews said it was an “illegal gathering” but he did not conclude that a sizable number of construction industry workers had no respect for coronavirus restrictions.
“What I would say is that protests don’t work. Getting vaccinated works, following the rules works. That’s how you stay open, that’s how you get open if you’re not open now,” he said.
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