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Construction workers protest against Covid-19 restrictions in Melbourne, Australia, on Tuesday. Picture: AAP/JAMES ROSS via REUTERS
Construction workers protest against Covid-19 restrictions in Melbourne, Australia, on Tuesday. Picture: AAP/JAMES ROSS via REUTERS

Melbourne’s construction industry is shutting down for at least two weeks amid concerns that right-wing extremist groups who have infiltrated the union movement are behind violent anti-vaccination protests in Australia’s second-largest city.

“We have seen appalling behaviour on site and on our streets, and now we’re acting decisively and without hesitation,” Victoria state industrial relations minister Tim Pallas said, announcing the closure from Tuesday. Concerns had been raised about the sector’s compliance with public health measures and directions.

Angry crowds gathered again Tuesday, firing flares and fireworks on the streets of Melbourne. Protesters hurled cans and kicked police cars, in defiance of the shutdown that will impact much of the state.

“The economic cost of this decision is estimated to be A$2.2bn ($1.6bn) in construction activity,” Australia’s assistant treasurer Michael Sukkar said. The closures will cost around A$640m in lost wages and 320,000 jobs across the industry, 9.2% of all jobs in the state, he said.

Melbourne, which is in the midst of a sixth round of stay-at-home orders amid an outbreak of the Delta variant of the coronavirus, saw violent anti-lockdown demonstrations at the weekend in which protesters scuffled with police, leading to more than 200 arrests. 

Then on Monday, hundreds of construction workers protested against state government’s orders to enforce mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations for people employed in the industry from September 24.

“This crowd was heavily infiltrated by neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremist groups,” the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union said. The workers’ union condemned the protests, saying it was “clear that a minority of those who participated were actual union members”.

‘Absolutely disgusting’

The Victorian government said the shutdown was due to concern about case numbers, transmission risk and reduced compliance. It added that this action would “reduce movement, minimise transmission and allow for the entire industry to appropriately adapt to the chief health officer directions, including increasing vaccination rates.” 

Victoria on Tuesday recorded 603 new infections, a record high for the current outbreak. Victorian state health minister Martin Foley told reporters that two-thirds of those cases were linked to construction sites across the state, with a number of the people living regionally and working in Melbourne.

The head of Australia’s union movement said on Monday that she was aware that construction unions had been targeted by “extremist groups” riled about the issue around vaccination mandates in the industry. 

It “was absolutely disgusting, that attack on a union office, and that was led and orchestrated by those very same people” who protested over the weekend, Sally McManus, the secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, said.

“They want to get unions on their side with their conspiracy theories that will lead to people being sick and dying and I can tell you this: the union movement in this country will not be intimidated by them.”

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com


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