In­dus­try, La­bor, unions ready for bat­tle over con­struc­tion watch­dog

Builders are fund­ing an ad cam­paign against op­po­si­tion plans to scrap the work­site overseer

The Weekend Australian - - INQUIRER - EWIN HANNAN

If Bill Shorten wins next year’s fed­eral elec­tion, life will be­come eas­ier for his al­lies in the Con­struc­tion, Forestry, Mar­itime, Min­ing and En­ergy Union. This is not a par­ti­san ob­ser­va­tion but a state­ment of re­al­ity.

Shorten wants to kill off the CFMEU’s neme­sis, the Aus­tralian Build­ing and Con­struc­tion Com­mis­sion, and en­sure the Coali­tion’s so-called “tough cop on the beat”, ABCC chief Stephen McBur­ney, loses his $434,690 a year job go­ing af­ter the union.

Un­like the pre­vi­ous La­bor gov­ern­ment, Shorten will not re­place the ABCC with a stand-alone reg­u­la­tor with weaker pow­ers. Max­i­mum civil penal­ties that now can be im­posed on the CFMEU and its of­fi­cials for un­law­ful con­duct will be cut by two-thirds and brought into line with penal­ties that ap­ply un­der the Fair Work Act to the rest of the work­force.

The CFMEU no longer will be pur­sued by an agency handed $32.2 mil­lion this fi­nan­cial year by the Coali­tion to em­ploy 90 in­spec­tors to visit more than 1000 sites. The union will be free of lawyers chas­ing prose­cu­tions for con­duct ex­tend­ing from cap­i­tal city build­ing sites to off­shore oil and gas projects. Le­gal set­tle­ments with com­pa­nies that pre­vent the CFMEU be­ing taken to court for un­law­ful con­duct, de­rided as “sweet­heart deals” by in­dus­try groups, will be al­lowed again.

In ex­tin­guish­ing the ABCC, La­bor also would abol­ish the na­tional con­struc­tion code that re­quires builders to re­move union­friendly con­di­tions from en­ter­prise agree­ments if they want to ten­der for com­mon­wealth work.

Clauses banned un­der the code in­clude the re­quire­ments that com­pa­nies con­sult with unions and the au­to­matic con­ver­sion of ca­sual work­ers to per­ma­nent sta­tus af­ter six weeks. But the code it­self is broad, pro­hibit­ing clauses that im­pose lim­its on the right of a com­pany to “man­age its busi­ness”.

When the Coali­tion de­creed em­ploy­ers must make agree­ments code-com­pli­ant to ac­cess lu­cra­tive fed­eral work, unions ex­tracted higher pay from com­pa­nies to com­pen­sate for the re­moval of code-of­fend­ing clauses.

“The ABCC and the build­ing code are un­fair, un­war­ranted and un­demo­cratic and La­bor has com­mit­ted to abol­ish­ing them,” La­bor’s work­place re­la­tions spokesman Bren­dan O’Con­nor tells In­quirer.

“The ABCC is sim­ply part of this gov­ern­ment’s anti-worker, ide­o­log­i­cal agenda, im­ple­ment­ing two sets of laws for work­ing peo­ple, deny­ing build­ing and con­struc­tion in­dus­try work­ers the same rights and en­ti­tle­ments af­forded to work­ers in ev­ery other sec­tor of the econ­omy.”

O’Con­nor says the “dra­co­nian” build­ing code has pro­hib­ited em­ploy­ers and unions from ne­go­ti­at­ing en­ter­prise agree­ments with con­di­tions that deal with is­sues such as em­ploy­ment of ap­pren­tices, lo­cal jobs and safety mea­sures. It is un­der­stood O’Con­nor is ex­am­in­ing the need for a re­place­ment code for ten­ders that would seek to im­pose new lim­its on the use of tem­po­rary for­eign work­ers, set min­i­mum lev­els of ap­pren­tice­ships, pro­mote higher safety stan­dards and en­cour­age in­creased fe­male par­tic­i­pa­tion.

Em­ploy­ers say if a Shorten gov­ern­ment scraps the ABCC and the code, the im­pact on the con­struc­tion sec­tor will be “cat­a­strophic”. Claim­ing the changes will “un­leash a Lord of the Flies en­vi­ron­ment”, Mas­ter Builders Aus­tralia chief ex­ec­u­tive Denita Wawn says the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s board has au­tho­rised the fund­ing of a na­tional ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign op­pos­ing the pro­pos­als in the lead-up to the elec­tion.

“Three royal com­mis­sions have pro­vided ir­refutable proof that the con­struc­tion unions are in­fested with a toxic and un­law­ful cul­ture of bul­ly­ing. This ev­i­dence has been cor­rob­o­rated by court case af­ter court case deal­ing with the union’s cal­cu­lated flout­ing of the law,’’ Wawn says.

Aus­tralian In­dus­try Group chief ex­ec­u­tive Innes Wil­lox says re­mov­ing the ABCC and the code will al­low unions to pres­sure em- ploy­ers into agree­ing to un­rea­son­able de­mands.

“Unions in the con­struc­tion in­dus­try rou­tinely use the com­mer­cial risk faced by con­trac­tors as a lever to se­cure con­ces­sions,’’ Wil­lox says. “This re­sults in work prac­tices and cost bur­dens which drive up project costs to the detri­ment of the whole com­mu­nity.

“The build­ing code im­poses a com­mer­cial risk on con­trac­tors that far out­weighs the cost of ca­pit­u­lat­ing to the … unions. To be re­moved from fu­ture ten­der lists would have cat­a­strophic im­pli­ca­tions for a ma­jor con­trac­tor. Bil­lions of dol­lars of work is at stake.”

Aus­tralian Mines and Met­als As­so­ci­a­tion chief ex­ec­u­tive Steve Knott says scrap­ping the ABCC and the code “paves a clear path to an­ar­chy”. “With $15m in fines over the past decade and $1m in fines since July, the union’s contempt for Aus­tralia’s laws and other par­tic­i­pants in the build­ing sec­tor shows no signs of wan­ing,’’ he says.

But ACTU sec­re­tary Sally McManus says the Coali­tion has im­ple­mented op­pres­sive laws that re­move work­ers’ rights and place ide­ol­ogy above work­place safety.

“They have cho­sen to ban agree­ments that set a floor un­der wages, and now em­ploy­ers are able to ex­ploit peo­ple with sham con­tract­ing and labour hire,’’ she says. “They’ve ob­structed ap­pren­tice ra­tios and fe­male par­tic­i­pa­tion quo­tas.”

Dave Noo­nan, na­tional sec­re­tary of the CFMEU’s con­struc­tion divi­sion, says em­ploy­ers are run­ning a Lib­eral Party-backed scare cam­paign and says the code is an anti-worker doc­u­ment that does noth­ing to ad­dress safety, sham con­tract­ing and wage theft.

“For Wil­lox and Wawn, the only things that are ever bad or un­law­ful are the things that the union does,’’ he says. “They seem to think it’s quite all right for em­ploy­ers to not pay work­ers and to run un­safe projects with no con­se­quences.’’

Univer­sity of Ade­laide law pro­fes­sor An­drew Stew­art says he does not sup­port sep­a­rate laws ap­ply­ing to the con­struc­tion sec­tor but be­lieves the con­duct of the CFMEU jus­ti­fies a sep­a­rate com- pli­ance divi­sion within, for ex­am­ple, the Fair Work Om­buds­man.

“It’s quite clear the con­struc­tion unions have a way of op­er­at­ing which in­volves rou­tinely flout­ing the law,’’ Stew­art says. “They be­lieve the laws aren’t just; they be­lieve they are morally jus­ti­fied in break­ing those laws.”

He says ma­jor build­ing com­pa­nies are ad­e­quately re­sourced to en­sure the law is en­forced but there are many smaller busi­nesses caught up in in­dus­trial ac­tion and at­tempted co­er­cion by unions.

“There is still a good ar­gu­ment to say there is a rea­son to have a reg­u­la­tor … to look af­ter those smaller em­ploy­ers just as the Fair Work Om­buds­man con­cen­trates on lower paid and more vul­ner­a­ble work­ers and isn’t quite so ready to go to the aid of se­nior ex­ec­u­tives, for ex­am­ple,” he says.

O’Con­nor, whom min­is­ters like to re­mind vot­ers is the brother of CFMEU na­tional sec­re­tary Michael O’Con­nor, must first get any changes though the Se­nate. He says the ALP will hold the union to ac­count for law-break­ing.

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