Art, Transfield and Refugees

Art, Transfield and Refugees
A Russian doll of inhumanities

 Humphrey McQueen  – 18 March 2014

 Sometimes you may need to bribe, to be tough, even to be inhuman, to reach your target. Every contract is a battle. What counts in the final victory. The victory is not to complete the contract in time, but also not to make monetary loses. If at the end of your career you go bankrupt, and you say you treated everyone humanely, you helped everyone, they will laugh at you. The choice of friends, selection of enemies is part of management today. We camouflage this with a veneer of civilisation.

Franco Belgiono-Nettis, co-founder of Transfield Corporation, in the official history by Gianfranco Cresciani, Transfield, The first fifty years, ABC Books, Sydney, 2006, p. 170.

Transfield is in a position to profit from running off-shore detention only because of nearly six decades of exploiting its workers and putting their lives at risk. A recent poll suggests that 60 percent of the population want the government to be tougher against refugees. There are many reasons why it has come to this, above all, the vileness of both the ALP and the Coalition. To excite a majority of Australians against the mis-treatment of refugees will require paying attention to the mistreatment of working people here. Tying their exploitation to the profits from compulsory detention opens pathways to showing who threatens our security every hour of every day.

A start towards linking the fate of refugees under Transfield to the needs of working people is to track through the corporation’s origins and record. The details are drawn from my Framework of flesh, builders’ labourers battle for health and safety, (2009) and We Built This Country, builders labourers and their unions (2011), both from Ginninderra Press, Port Adelaide, and accessible through

Clerical fascism

In 1951, an Italian firm won a contract to erect power-lines from the Tallawarra station to the Sydney suburb of Homebush. The company sent out twenty-five workers, stuck them into tents, with no running water, but with a priest to keep watch. The engineers applied the mentality that they had acquired as officers in Mussolini’s military: labourers were soldiers on a battlefield for profit. Two of these engineers, Franco Belgiorno-Nettis and Carlo Salteri, broke away to set up Transfield in 1956. They had so little capital that they could not pay wages in full, or on time. Men got half their money in cash and half as cheques, and were warned not to cash them all at once. The foremen told the workers to pinch all the materials and equipment they could.

Transfield kept its labourers isolated in camps as an anti-strike device. If they did stop, Transfield closed the camps and refused to readmit their spokesmen. In May 1962, forty BLs on the Vales Point power station struck against having to pay for their board and keep. Conditions in the Transfield camps were more like the military than a village, the site managers behaving like NCOs. To break up a stop-work meeting, one foreman threw some labourers into the back of a truck before threatening to drive over the rest. A steel inspector recalled:

It wasn’t the matter of working with Transfield eight or ten hours a day, that was twenty-four hours plus four or five on top of that before you got relief. Those men worked like dogs in the early days, and they were sometimes treated like dogs.

Transfield saw itself as taking care of its workers by binding them together like sticks in Mussolini’s symbol of fascism.

Belgiono-Nettis advanced his corporate interests through his ‘choice of friends’ throughout the NSW Labor Right and the State’s Catholic mafia to the top of the premier’s department. He was the insider to Obeid’s outsider.


The official history of Transfield boasted that substituting cheap labour for capital equipment had allowed its founders to snatch contracts from competitors. From its origins in 1956, the firm ignored both safety rules and trade demarcations. A foreman recalled one new arrival who had been sent along as a rigger, but was so frightened “he couldn’t get off the ground.” Transfield sent men up 200m television towers without safety belts. Its supervisors claimed that protective gear added to the danger by limiting mobility. One of the lines-men told the corporate historian:

The first rule for a rigger is stay alive. He always thinks in terms of safety first. He analyses every problem according to how he can maximise two factors, safety and speed. I must admit that in the beginning with Transfield, we took risks by doing a lot of work that ought to have been done by cranes. We didn’t have the cranes. Once, when we were working on building the soaking pit at the steelworks, the crane just wouldn’t reach to the top of the building to put the steel in place. So my mate and me had to carry a channel 10 feet by 4 feet, up 15 feet, position it, which is usually the crane’s job, and then put it together. On the ground, two men would never do such a thing, but we did it high in the air. Of course, it was dangerous.

Such corporate behaviour misbehaviour did not decline once the company got established. The firm ignored safety standards. Its bloody record continued into the late 1990s with the City Link tunnel in Melbourne. Even Howard’s Royal Commissioner Cole took Transfield to task in 2004 for its safety violations on that project.

 At it again

At the same time, the firm was buying fake certificates to bring unsafe scabs onto Sydney’s Northside Tunnel again revealing its addiction to violating OH&S regulations when its managers on that project hired inexperienced and untrained people to replace battlers for safety. Transfield began this switch-over just as the project was coming to its end, with the usual rush to finish on time and within budget. If attention to safety slowed the operation, the corporation stood to lose.

Transfield could not get away with sacking union activists just because they were insisting on a safe workplace. The firm therefore had to get around the custom that the order of dismissal accord with the number of Tickets the workers held. Hence, it bought phony certificates for newcomers to justify keeping them on instead of long-serving and experienced activists.

The chairman of the On-the-Job Safety Committee told the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption:

We had quite a number of competent people that didn’t hold legitimate tickets but had been driving machines for years on permits. A change in middle-management superintendent took place where a lot of unskilled people were brought on board [to replace] the people that were potentially creating industrial problems as regards the way the job had been driven.

The Safety Committee chairman had to buy himself a fake Excavator’s Ticket to hold onto his place. When the job ended, he suffered the consequences of being “deemed too safe”. He told the ICAC:

The last two-and-a-half years I have been out of work … because of some of the issues that I used to raise, and I believe that’s filtered through to the tunneling industry.

Had the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) existed when this worker had been battling for safety, it would have prosecuted him. As it was, he suffered the maximum penalty – not counting death on site – for a worker by losing his livelihood. Transfield escaped prosecution. They are not the only serial offenders, or the only firm to get flogged with a feather for breaking the law.

A crock of crooks


Collusive tendering and price-fixing are the ‘ingrained culture’ of the construction bosses. In 1911, the NSW MBA justified its members’ involvement in illegal commissions by saying that they ‘should be openly recognised’ as ‘universal and worldwide’. The 1990 NSW Royal Commission into the construction industry forced the resignation of the executive of the NSW MBA which had been a clearing house for collusive tendering.

The playground excuse

In 1995, Leighton’s then CEO, Wal King, justified his company’s use of false invoices to conceal price-fixing on the Sydney Casino. It was, he protested, ‘the culture … and custom that had been long-standing in the industry that had been handed on for years.’ So had King’s excuse. The 1995 government report branded King as ‘not of good repute, having regard to character, honesty and integrity’.

The Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) recently fined Leightons $300,000 for not supplying information to the stock exchange. Leighton’s came under investigation here and in Iraq into whether one of its subsidiaries paid bribes to win a contract. (Australian, 6 June 2012, p. 43.)

Lend Lease paid fines and restitution of $54USm. for ten years of ‘a systematic pattern of audacious fraud’ in the US of A.  Yet again, the defence was: ‘everyone does it’.

The ABCC was surprised early in 2012 when Victorian police charged thirty building inspectors with ‘alleged corruption, serious misconduct and harassment’; they allegedly took kickbacks to block formal investigations. On the same day, the State government announced its own construction-industry police to attack the Construction Division of the CFMEU. The new body will not pursue the employers who paid the bribes to the public servants. Nor will the new Commonwealth Royal Commission into unions.

 Missing in action

Three collapsed companies – Reed, St Hilliers and Kell & Rigby – had failed to file accounts on times over several years. As the Age concluded: ’It seems there is no one to stop building companies from calling in voluntary administrators and transferring assets to another clean corporate entity and starting anew.’ (20 June 2012) They do that to avoid fines for deaths on site.

Killing not murder when done for profit

The gravest matter is the Hardie asbestos horror. On appeal, the High Court disbarred Hardie directors for seven years for rigging the books about its compensation fund. Their victims had ‘No appeal from the grave’.

Barbarism and civilisation

Transfield’s co-founder, Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, patronised the arts with a slice of the profits he screwed out of his employees. He boasted of corruption and inhumanity: “We camouflage this with a veneer of civilisation.” He differed from his fellow capitalists in acknowledging that, in a class society, each act of civilisation involves acts of barbarism against workers whose creative capacities pay for the art patron’s beneficence.

The arts community was beside itself with grief when their patron Dame Elizabeth Murdoch died. None of them asked from where the lucre came? She never did a day’s work in her life. All the money she gave away came from her husband’s and son’s exploitation of their employees. Rupert might be a shit but he is not such a swine that he let his mother pay tax.

Similarly, the beneficiaries of Dick Pratt’s arts funding did not want to know that they were living off a crook who stole from every Australian through his price-fixing racket. The $40m. fine imposed by the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) indicates the expanse of his thievery. The mentality of his class became blatant when the big end of town attacked ACCC chief Graeme Samuel for prosecuting Pratt after accepting his hospitality, of being a guest in his home.

The rule that you ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you’ extended into the parliamentary arena. Pratt put his personal jet at the disposal of his then son-in-law, Bill Shorten, as an AWU official. Although Pratt had been exposed as a corporate crook, Anti-Labour Party prime minister Rudd flew to the shyster’s bedside to pay homage for Pratt’s giving away a fraction of the stash he had nicked from us all.

The latest affront is Twiggy Forrest’s campaign against chattel-slavery on the proceeds of his wage-slavery.


Corruption and exploitation will not be ended by outrage. Indignation will not even deter Brandis from blocking funds to anyone who turns down corporate cash, aka, a ‘veneer of civilisation’. Artists from the Biennale have made a start towards linking corporate capital with its inherent inhumanity. The next challenge is for all of us to shout NO whenever corporations attempt to patronise art, education, health or sport with the proceeds of their crimes. A stiffer task is to imagine a world without them, a world without the want, the war and the waste that the inhuman system which is capitalism over-produces. The finest and noblest of art forms will be our envisaging the kind of society that we can build as our collective efforts enrich individual creativities. Placing the highest moral and aesthetic value on social labour opens pathways to a time when corporate blood money will no longer be a distraction because ‘human being’ and ‘artist’ will again be synonymous.