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Mateship never out of fashion

By Col Harrington - posted Monday, 13 October 2008

As a life-long supporter of the wider labour movement and decades long union member, I’ve been struggling to find the enthusiasm to defend the place of the union movement in modern society.

Not because I don’t believe the union belongs anymore. It’s more to do with weariness at justifying an obvious good in the face of never ending attacks by all comers. Trade unions and the essential philosophy they represent, altruism pure and simple, is apparently out of fashion and no longer valued by society.

So just how do we sell this magnificent movement? Appeals to recognise and acknowledge the proud history of achievements and effectiveness in improving pay, working conditions, and social infrastructure have been tried before to no avail. Studies of the changing structure of the workforce can explain a large part of the decline in union membership through the growth of the service industry, the privatisation of government owned enterprises, the casualisation and feminisation of the workforce, and the loss of manufacturing jobs. But what can’t be explained is the open hostility so often levelled at unions and unionists.


To what purpose? What heinous crimes have they committed? No organisation is perfect and mistakes have been made and inefficiencies entrenched for far longer than they should have. However, throughout more than 100 years of struggle the most the union movement is guilty of is raising the consciousness of working people and saying to them “You’re worth more”.

The challenge to the union movement’s right to exist as an effective and powerful change agent and societal reformer is an argument that’s been out there for as long as I can remember. The fact that there are fewer of us union members does not necessarily mean we’re in the wrong, it simply means there is a bigger burden we have to carry. No matter: we know it’s worthwhile. As I stated at the outset, I was struggling to find the enthusiasm to state the case for the union movement yet again when just this week I received word of an organisation called OZ Help.

OZ HELP is an initiative of, and funded by, the Building Employees Redundancy Trust (BERT) in response to the findings that out of all the monies paid out to members families as a result of the death of a worker between 1999 and 2007, a staggering 22 per cent were the result of suicide.

It has been well documented that Australia has above average numbers of suicides and that young men in particular are chillingly successful in taking their own lives while choosing violent ends. In Australia the overall suicide rate for males is 13.6 per 100,000. By comparison, the most recent data for female suicides in Australia shows 3.8 per 100,000.

Alarmed by the statistics the board of the redundancy trust commissioned the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention (AISRAP) to conduct a major study into suicides in the Queensland Construction Industry. AISRAP studied a population of 167,103 workers in the industry between 1995 and 2001 and reached the conclusion that as many as 40.3 out of 100,000 workers on average would suicide in a year. These statistics were even higher for young workers aged between 15 and 24 where the rates were 58.6 in 100,000 workers, a shocking figure.

With the mortality rate from accidents in the construction industry at 6.1 per 100,000, and for transport accidents at 8.3 per 100,000, the statistics display that construction workers are six times more likely to suicide than to die from an industrial accident and up to one in 20 workers will contemplate suicide during any one year. The average age at the time of suicide in the construction industry was 34.6 compared to the national average of 40.3.


What the research has not yet been able to detail is how many of these workers have been sucked in to the industry by the building and resources boom, even if only briefly, and are now showing up in construction worker suicides whereas before they may have been unemployed or in other industries. Neither is there information on their circumstances before their flirtation with the construction industry through the proliferation of labour hire companies. It is likely that the figures for suicides in the construction industry have been inflated by these factors, however, it’s still unacceptably high.

OZ Help is initiating a training program for onsite workers so that they can hopefully spot when a workmate isn’t travelling well and can point him in the right direction before he commits suicide. General Awareness Training (GAT) has now been given to more than 250 workers in the construction industry. Sadly, far too many suicide victims have sent out signals that workmates did not pick up on.

“If only I’d known” is a common phrase that OZ Help hopes to banish from the industry. Through a system entitled “MATES in construction” (MIC) workers will be trained to spot the signals or “invitations” that suicidal people often send out through their behaviour, their mood, their words, their demeanour and even their personal hygiene or lack thereof. These invitations are the survival instinct kicking in (if only wanly) where a person contemplating suicide is subconsciously saying “help me, pull me to safety”. With effective intervention, up to 30 per cent of potential suicide victims can be saved. In construction that could mean twice as many saved as are lost through accidents.

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About the Author

Col Harrington is a Brisbane writer and member of the BLF and the ALP. He is employed as a Workplace Health and Safety Officer.

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All articles by Col Harrington

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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