The Victorian Government has warned the construction sector must adhere to strict Covid-19 protocols if it is to remain open as the industry resumes after a two-week hiatus.
Some 10,000 labourers returned to work on Tuesday after an industry roadmap to reopening agreement was reached between the state government, builders, unions and industry partners on 1 October.
The private construction sector reopened at 25% capacity for large projects while the construction of state critical infrastructure could resume at full capacity under the roadmap.
The minister for transport infrastructure, Jacinta Allan, said there would be an ongoing series of enforcement blitzes as well as daily inspections from WorkSafe Victoria workers and other authorised officers to ensure worksites were complying with restrictions.
“We’ve set higher standards … and there will be higher levels of enforcement,” she said.
“We’ve been very, very clear that there’s a penalty regime associated with not following the rules, and if there’s an ongoing demonstration of non-adherence to the rules, sites can be shut down.
“We’ve got to make sure the industry stays open and that means everyone following the rules.”
Victoria police said it would remain on alert following days of protests outside of the construction union’s headquarters after the vaccine became mandatory for the entire sector.
Allan was not aware of what percentage of the workforce had been fully vaccinated since the mandate was introduced, but said 99% of workers returning to the metro tunnel site had received at least one Covid-19 vaccine dose, and 95% of those working on level crossing sites had received at least one jab.
“That’s a great outcome,” Allan said. “They’re not only able to get back to work but protecting their workmates … their family, and their communities.”
Under the current roadmap, compliance enforcement will be a key factor to the building and construction industry remaining open.
All construction companies require an updated Covid-safe plan, a designated Covid marshal and a declaration worksites are compliant with new public health requirements.
Meal rooms can reopen but have been equipped with exhaust fans and ventilation systems to encourage better airflow.
All workers need to carry authorised permits and must have been fully vaccinated by 13 November.
Corey Hannett, the director general of the Major Transport Infrastructure Authority, said there would be a “minimal” delay to state projects as a result of the shutdown, as some were already ahead of schedule.
From Tuesday, metropolitan workers can travel to regional areas to work on small-scale construction sites if they are fully vaccinated or have a medical exemption.
Single dosed workers are able to travel between metropolitan and regional areas to work on state critical projects and large-scale construction sites if they are tested twice a week.
At 70% double-dose targets, large-scale construction will be able to return to 100% of the workforce, and at 80% all caps will be removed.
The Master Builders Association of Victoria, which worked with industry associations and unions on the reopening plan, welcomed the sector’s return.
The organisation’s chief executive Rebecca Casson said the two-week shutdown had been “extremely challenging” for the construction industry, which employed some 320,000 workers.
“They know that our industry provides 46% of Victoria’s tax revenue, and when our sector is shut down, $64m a day is lost in wages,” she said.
“Where individual sites may be found to be non-compliant, they must be held to account and they must be individually shut down – not our whole industry.”
Casson said renovation workers were still unable to work inside occupied houses, which was delaying kitchen and bathroom renovations beyond Christmas.
Anthony Forsyth, a workplace law professor at RMIT University, said a consensus between the CFMEU, the Victorian government and the Master Builders Association had broken down when it became clearer Covid rules weren’t being followed on some sites.
“The CFMEU lost control of elements of its membership who were very unhappy with the changes, saw the union as complicit, and these various fissures provided an opening for anti-lockdown protesters to push their own agenda,” he said.
Forsyth expected the worst of violent protests targeted at unions were over, but expected anti-lockdown protests more broadly would continue.
“It has opened up some faultlines among the unions,” he said.
“Unions are going to face major challenges, as most support mandatory vaccination in workplaces where this is backed by public health orders.
“But they’ll be placed in the position of having to defend members who want to challenge their dismissal for refusing to be vaxxed.”