Union Star Chambers To Return Under Abbott


The first two months of the Abbott government have shown us a lot about its real priorities, rather than the small target it adopted in opposition.

They will hand over a major review of the public sector to the Business Council of Australia, have tried to shut down media scrutiny of asylum seekers, and will now attempt to raise from the grave the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

The original ABCC was set up in 2005 under the Howard government at the heart of the broader WorkChoices agenda, as an attempt to reduce the ability of workers in the construction sector to be represented by strong unions.

We are hearing the same claims now that we did then: that the construction industry is plagued by “thuggery” and a special body is urgently required to restore order. This body will require a few special privileges, such as being able to interrogate workers in secret hearings without the right to silence.

What concerns us most is that this is just the beginning. The Liberal Party, in concert with big business, is out to smear unions and union members and take them out of the equation because unions represent the only real organised challenge in society to their bankrupt ideology of "let ‘em rip" free markets.

Under WorkChoices, the Liberal-big business coalition struck at the very heart of working conditions. It was only unions that stood in their way and saw off those unfair laws.

Their strategy this time around is to first weaken unions and then go after wages and conditions. They will start with the building unions who have been at the forefront of many of the improvements to working conditions that we now take for granted.

The old ABCC used its coercive powers on at least 200 people, almost all construction workers. They were taken off sites and interviewed, with no right to silence and no choice of lawyer. For months the threat of a repeat interview was held over them. They were subject to the stress of being unable to tell even their family about what had happened, at risk of jail.

Eventually the case of Ark Tribe, a worker who defied the ABCC and whose case was thrown out of court, forced it to scale back its abuse of workers’ rights.

All Australians should be concerned about the existence of a body that takes basic rights from workers from one specific industry, particularly on the flimsy grounds put forward by ABCC supporters. Construction workers should be treated the same as all other workers, not subject to the stress of arbitrary interrogations.

The record shows that the first ABCC was a $135 million dud. Despite its coercive powers it failed to uncover any of the major illegalities its supporters claimed existed in construction. What taxpayers got for their money was a bureaucracy that targeted construction workers and failed to deliver any positive outcomes.

During the ABCC’s reign safety records on Australian construction sites worsened. It did nothing to tackle employers on safety issues and unions were forced to concentrate their resources on dealing with ABCC harassment rather than protecting their members.

As well as failing to improve safety the ABCC conspicuously failed to investigate or prosecute employers underpaying workers. It did nothing to investigate the use of "sham contracting" in the construction industry that costs billions each year in tax revenue. It will not look at bribery allegations recently made against construction giant Leightons.

Trying to resurrect a flawed investigative body shows that the Abbott government and its backers are putting ideology ahead of sensible policy.

To try and boost their case, the most vocal supporters of the return of the ABCC have deliberately blurred the lines between criminal offences and breaches of industrial law. They use vague and emotive allegations of “blackmail” or “intimidation” on building sites to justify a huge investment and coercive powers that are solely used against unions.

Let’s be clear: the role of the ABCC is only to investigate breaches of industrial law. If there have been breaches of criminal law on building sites – whether by unions, employers or anyone else – they should be investigated by the police and the perpetrators punished.

The new government has at least let workers know where they are coming from, and that the proposed new ABCC will be as unjust and discriminatory as the old one. They’ve floated rumours that AFP officers will be seconded to the ABCC. They’ve told us that anti-union figures John Lloyd and Nigel Hadgkiss will run the new body. These characters have a history of ideological opposition to workers’ rights. Re-appointing them is like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank.

The federal government is also talking about replicating Victoria’s flawed construction industry code on a national level. This code threatens employers who sign perfectly legal union agreements with the loss of government contracts if the agreements are deemed to be too union friendly. For example, companies that agree with unions to employ a certain number of apprentices on major projects may miss out, even if they offer the most competitive bid.

I have no idea how this is meant to help the taxpayers who pay for major projects, or even fits in with the government’s intention of reducing red tape for business.

What we will get from the new ABCC is a body designed to harass and intimidate unions as they go about their business of representing workers, protecting their pay and conditions and ensuring they get home to their families each night.

We will be working with the opposition parties in the current and post-July 2014 Senate to stop the reintroduction of the ABCC.

It will be a test of the new Senate and the real attitudes of the Palmer United Party and others who claim to be standing up for ordinary Australians.

The building and construction industry is a dangerous workplace. I know – I’ve worked in it and I’ve seen mates seriously injured or killed. That’s why we need strong, effective unions to enforce safety standards and defend the rights of workers. No union member or official should ever need to apologise for fighting for the right of building workers to come home in one piece.

Last week the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program showed what happens to a society when you don’t have effective unions. It revealed that tertiary-educated people working as bar staff in the United States earn poverty wages of just US$2.13 an hour. They don’t have paid holidays or paid sick leave.

Every Australian watching that program would have been relieved that’s not the situation here, and said, “thank God for unions”. That is why the union movement is united in its opposition to the ABCC.

We are aware that the government feels it can get away with attacks on construction workers, but we know that if we do not act to stop the ABCC and its attack on workers’ rights, then there is no telling which industry and which workers will be next.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.