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West Gate TBM kicks off after two-year delay

March 24, 2022

After two long years of delays, the tunnel boring machine (TBM) at West Gate Tunnel is finally spinning.

The AWU has been part of the project since it was first launched, and helped members navigate a million-dollar underpayments case, soil contamination, three years of negotiations, and legal battles, before the TBM began operating a week after Australia Day. All-up, the project will employ 300 specialised tunnellers.

John Holland, who was initially awarded the project, first attempted to arbitrate an agreement, which the AWU successfully pushed back. Members were then subcontracted through GroundHog Earthmoving, until an EA was finalised in June 2021.

The John Holland/CPB West Gate Tunnel Agreement is the highest-paying in the industry, and sees an entry-level tunneller paid an annual $230,000 (including travel and site allowances) plus superannuation. An experienced tunneller operating the TBM would be paid $320,000.

“This agreement was the result of a hard-fought battle by union members and officials,” says AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton.

“John Holland and CPB tried to erode the high standards of pay and conditions that Victorian unionists have earned over decades of work – but the AWU dug in and refused to accept a sub-standard deal.”

“It took three years of negotiations, but in the end the AWU secured an excellent result for our West Gate Tunnel members, who now enjoy the highest-paying civil construction agreement in Australia.”

As well as an industry-leading agreement, AWU organisers also secured $1.63 million in back pay for workers subcontracted to GroundHog. The payout was welcomed by members and organisers, who fought for two years to reclaim their rightful entitlements.

The ambitious West Gate Tunnel project also suffered a two-year setback in 2019, after carcinogenic PFAS chemicals were found in the soil. An ongoing debate over disposal of the soil resulted in a bitter stoush between the government, Transurban, John Holland, CPB, and local residents.

At the time, 150 workers were made redundant, and deployed onto other construction projects. They are only now returning now that tunnelling has finally begun. A second TBM is scheduled to begin operation in mid-to-late March, which will see even more hands on deck.


AWU National Secretary Daniel Walton, WGTP delegate Judd Gaylard, and Lead Construction Organiser Ronnie Hayden

Daniel visited the West Gate Tunnel project in late February, to see the TBM first-hand.

“It’s fantastic to see these workers are finally able to get the job underway,” he says.

“We’ve had enough delays. Our members are keen to get on with it, finish the tunnel, and move onto the next project.”

The site is also 100% union, with every tunnelling employee holding an AWU ticket. Site delegates and HSRs Johnny and Judd are also on-hand to make sure everyone is being treated fairly, and the site is safe for work.

“When we were on-site this week, any safety issues our organiser pointed out were immediately actioned.” Daniel says. “This is thanks to the diligence of our organisers, members, and HSRs, who are continuously holding the builder to account.”

The multi-billion dollar project is also a cautionary tale in the importance of local procurement policy. While the precast concrete used for the tunnel is sourced from Bennella, steel used earlier in the project came from a Chinese supplier.

“Think of the many, many tonnes of steel, aluminium, cement, and glass that will go into this tunnel,” Daniel says.

“We have world-class manufacturing facilities in all these key products, so why are we not using them in our major infrastructure projects? With the right engagement between governments, builders, and manufacturing leaders, we should be able to provide these local goods.”

“It makes very little sense to import construction materials, and send those profits offshore, when we have almost everything we need right on our doorstep.”

“Australian-made should be a core part of any public infrastructure projects – and companies that win the tender must keep to its terms and conditions.”

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