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Issue #1582      February 20, 2013

Werribee protests – the criminalisation of dissent

Protests at the site of a new water treatment plant in western Melbourne grabbed the media spotlight recently when a contractor on the project took the Rambo-like step of hiring helicopters to fly type 457 visa workers onto the site. They were flown over the heads of unemployed local tradespeople who were emphatic that they had nothing against the Filipino workers involved, but that there was no “skills shortage” requiring the use of guest labour. Threats of police action and massive fines saw to the winding up of the protest and, as The Guardian goes to press, vengeance is set to be pursued in the Federal Court. The re-badged ABCC, Fair Work Australia Building and Construction, is going to hound the AMWU (Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union) for the cost of crushing the dissent. Amounts of $300,000 a day (including $6,000 a day for helicopter hire) have been bandied about in the media.

The events confirm an increasingly confrontational trend on the part of companies and governments to break the resistance of workers and communities seeking to defend jobs, pay rates and conditions from attack. The case of Bob Carnegie in Queensland is another recent example (see Bob Carnegie case: ITF statement).

Aside from the deployment of helicopters, the events at Werribee saw other extreme tactics used against those protesting the abuse of 457 visas. Head contractor, Spanish joint venture Tedra Australia Pty Ltd, hired a right-wing activist from the anti-union H R Nicholls society for advice on the protests. They provided a recording device to Australian Financial Review columnist and industrial relations consultant Grace Collier who hid it in her bra to secretly record conversations with AMWU organiser Tony Mavromatis. She also used a laptop to secretly record a telephone conversation via Skype.

While there are doubts Ms Collier’s “evidence” is admissible in court, its intention is clear – to trap the organiser into some sort of admission that the AMWU was coordinating the protests and thus “guilty” of organising a picket. Pickets have essentially been made illegal over recent decades and governments, bosses and their ideological servants are keen to shut down any other forms of firm resistance to workplace dictatorship. The organiser is alleged to have said that he believed the protests would end if local workers were hired.

The Baillieu government was also keen to break the protest and worked to force the police off the sidelines to intervene. According to media reports, police were unwilling to get involved as they had not received any complaint form the owner of the land where the protests were being held. City West Water finally caved in to pressure from the government and businesses involved and made the official complaint last week.

Baillieu is exploiting recent events to press for tougher legislation to crush the sort of protest seen at Werribee. The Premier refuses to acknowledge people in a work-deprived community would be moved to protest the snubbing of local tradespeople and insists it must be a conspiracy hatched by unions, which he appears to regard as outlaw organisations. “I think we’ve seen that over the past 10 years, rotating [union] members through pickets so that anybody who is subject to a legal order from the courts is rotated out and others are rotated in. I think there is some room to review that ...”

Unfortunately for the Premier, his predecessors gifted those sorts of powers to federal authorities but there is no doubt he will be part of the team currently pressing for total employer victory on industrial issues. They are threatening to kick up a stink about the completely symbolic amendments to the Fair Work Act to do with roster changes and flexible working hours. They will try to shoot down new legislation about workplace bullying.

Bosses will try to conceal their intentions with all sorts of verbiage, as they did in regard to the use of the type 457 workers at Werribee. They insist they were employed using the same rate of pay as local workers and that they had high grade welding skills that were not available on the local labour market. Workers insist that safety standards at the site are sub-standard and that the work could have been carried out by a third year apprentice. They are angry about the lack of jobs and government projects to provide employment. They deeply regret the crippling of unions’ ability to defend workers by means previously accepted as legitimate.   

Next article – Editorial – The pretend mining tax

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