Victoria’s construction workers will be forced off the job for two weeks after a violent anti-vaccine protest outside union offices stoked fears of COVID-19 transmission at worksites statewide.
Hundreds of construction workers rallied outside the Melbourne office of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) office on Monday, hurling objects and verbal abuse at officials accused of sympathising with the state government over an incoming industry vaccine mandate.
The CFMEU accused “outside extremists” of stoking the protest, but the government said the demonstration highlighted genuine concerns over “case numbers, transmission risk and reduced compliance” through the industry.
As a result, construction sites in metropolitan Melbourne, the City of Ballarat, the City of Greater Geelong, Surf Coast Shire and Mitchell Shire will be closed until 5 October.
Workers will only be permitted on site to perform emergency work or essential work to ensure health and safety standards are maintained.
The site shutdowns in regional Victoria may be eased if those regions exit general lockdown restrictions before 5 October.
Under the previously-announced vaccine mandate, all construction workers will be required to receive at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine before midnight on Thursday, 23 September.
The state’s construction workforce will need to demonstrate proof of vaccination once they pick up tools in a fortnight, the government says.
Minister for Industrial Relations Tim Pallas said the shutdown was an appropriate response to the threat of viral transmission and the risks posed across some worksites.
“We’ve been clear: if you don’t follow the rules, we won’t hesitate to take action,” he said in a statement.
“We have seen widespread non-compliance across the industry and that’s why we’re taking necessary steps to protect every single Victorian.
“We put the industry on notice just a week ago, we have seen appalling behaviour on site and on our streets, and now we’re acting decisively and without hesitation.”
The Victorian Building Industry Group of Unions, which includes the CFMEU, has disputed the latest shutdown.
“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,” the group said.
The unions said the earlier closure of worksite break rooms over transmission fears was “unworkable and too heavy-handed”.
They also conveyed the view vaccination rates among construction workers would have risen without mandates.
“We have supported and encouraged our members to make their own informed choice,” they said.
Around 20,000 priority Pfizer vaccine appointments have been made available for Victorian construction workers, with AstraZeneca jab walk-up appointments available at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre past 3pm each afternoon.
Victoria counted 603 new community cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, with more than 40,000 vaccine doses administered.