Ken Slattery, the chief executive officer of the peak body for Australia’s heavy construction materials industry, has warned in an opinion piece that the capacity for the industry to be an engine for the nation’s post-pandemic economic recovery is being hindered by snap lockdowns.
When it comes to battling COVID-19, Australians have done better than most, largely controlling the spread of this insidious virus, while continuing to support those sectors of the economy that most need assistance to get through the worst of lockdowns.
And much of our economic resilience over the past year has been built on the continuing operation of the wider building and construction sector, which combined accounts for about 10 per cent of Australia’s GDP and employs more than nine per cent of the entire workforce.
The building and construction sector – of which the supply of cement, concrete and aggregates is an integral part – provides more full-time jobs than any other sector of the economy.
From quarry workers to bricklayers, from building site employees to truck drivers delivering concrete, the building and construction sector has kept Australia working during lockdowns, in a COVID-safe and constructive manner.
In the case of the heavy construction materials industry, which Cement Concrete and Aggregates Australia (CCAA) represents, we were among the first to devise and implement back in March 2020 a comprehensive suite of operational guidance and safe work practices to tackle COVID-19.
We have kept our workers and the community safe while remaining open for business and supporting the economic recovery throughout earlier lockdowns.
But the ability of the building and construction sector generally to remain the engine for Australia’s economic recovery is being seriously hampered by the decision of individual States to institute snap lockdowns and in the process, close down almost all construction activity.
The recent five-day snap lockdown in Victoria is a case in point.
While certain public sector infrastructure projects deemed to be a priority were allowed to continue, the majority of the industry was forced to shut down for nearly a week.
That move alone is estimated to have cost the Victorian economy over $450 million in revenue a day, and $63 million a day in wages, according to figures compiled by the Master Builders Victoria.
The long-term economic and social impact of such revenue and wages loss is enormous, given that building and construction is the third largest sector of the Victorian economy, with more than one in four Victorians employed in the sector.
There are very good reasons why governments institute lockdowns. And we know that until the risk of transmission of COVID-19 has been eliminated, there will always be a prospect of outbreaks and governments may need to implement further controls.
However, while the priority will always be to protect the health of our community, this does not require indiscriminate closure of essential activities.
The unco-ordinated “stop-start” approach we have witnessed in Victoria with the building and construction sector in the past few weeks does not work, especially when we can demonstrate that we can operate in a safe manner.
During the toughest national lockdown restrictions last year, the building and construction sector established a track record nationally of being able to operate responsibly throughout the pandemic.
In the heavy construction materials industry, for example, there has been an extremely low number of cases of COVID-19, in part due to the nature of its activities, but also because we have been highly responsive to the challenges presented by the pandemic – and quick to respond and support government health directives.
In fact, in the wider building and construction sector there have been no reported COVID-19 cases on construction worksites since September 2020.
As the main building union has said in a recent letter to Premier Daniel Andrews in Victoria, the building and construction sector went the extra mile to act responsibly.
That is why we believe that the time has come for all governments to recognise the essential role played by the building and construction sector in the economic and social well-being of Australians, and the crucial role we expect it to play in Australia’s economic recovery.
We call on governments to support the sector’s ongoing operations throughout these isolated outbreaks.
The many thousands of Australians employed in building and construction are essential to the building of the very infrastructure that keeps us safe, from homes to schools, bridges to roads and of course, hospitals.
The bridge to recovery post the pandemic will be built on a strong and viable building and construction sector.
Ken Slattery is the Chief Executive Officer of Cement Concrete and Aggregates Australia. Visit: ccaa.com.au