Thousands of CFMEU workers marched through central Sydney on Thursday morning, calling for a ban on dangerous engineered stone that union leaders have labelled a “death sentence” for thousands of stonemasons.
The unionists walked off the job for the march, timed to send a message ahead of a federal and state work health and safety ministers meeting on Friday.
Union heavy hitters from around the country attended the rally, including national secretary Zach Smith and Victorian boss, John Setka.
“The CFMEU’s position is unmoved. If governments don’t carry through on banning engineered stone, the union will. July 2024 remains our deadline,” Mr Smith said in a statement.
Silica dust from engineered stone, a material commonly found in benchtops in households across Australia, can cause silicosis, a lung disease that can lead to severe respiratory problems and even death.
Workers can be exposed to silica dust while installing engineered stone benchtops in households when cutting, drilling or grinding the stone, sending silica dust fragments flying into the air.
As well as silicosis, exposure can cause lung cancer and auto-immune diseases.
More than half a million Australian workers are exposed to silica dust in their daily lives, according to the CFMEU’s Stop This Killer Stone website.
A report from Curtin University estimates some 10,000 workers will likely develop lung cancers from the exposure.
The union campaign against engineered stone has been rumbling for months and now it is front and centre.
“The only way we will end silicosis among stonemasons is to ban engineered stone,” Australian Council of Trade Unions assistant secretary Liam O’Brien said in August.
“There are plenty of products we can build kitchen benchtops with.
“We don’t need to use these dangerous materials.”
The marchers were loud and passionate moving through the streets.
Union leaders with megaphones called out “killer stone” and the crowd chanted back “ban it now”.
In a furious speech to workers, Mr Smith called engineered stone a “death sentence” for stonemasons and said it was a “moral failure” that workers had to hit the streets to get it banned.
“The fact that we are still arguing for this ban, the fact that we have to do this, the fact that we have to hit the streets is a disgrace in itself. It is a moral failure,” he said.
“Here you are, you walked off the job and that’s why I know we are going to win this campaign. Because when workers are united, when workers stand together, when workers take action, there is nothing that we cannot achieve.
“And the price of failure in this campaign is inconceivable. We cannot lose this campaign and we will not lose this campaign because the cost of losing this campaign is written in human life.”