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Issue #1630      March 12, 2014

Abbott wants bosses’ unions or no unions

Last month two workers were injured when scaffolding at a construction site in Mascot, Sydney collapsed. They rode the falling materials ten metres to the ground and were taken to hospital, lucky to be alive. The falling scaffolding brought down power lines and fell across the footpath and one lane of the road. It was only luck that no pedestrians or motorists were hit in this busy street.

(Photo: Anna Pha)

According to the Construction division of the CFMEU, there was a stoppage by workers at that site just before Christmas over safety concerns with the scaffolding. It was one of two serious accidents on construction sites in Sydney last month. The other involved a concrete pour, with the pump truck tipping over the next day. Luck alone saw no one killed or injured.

In January, a construction worker died in a fall at the controversial Lend Lease site at Barangaroo in Sydney. Reports indicate that he fell 30 metres from scaffolding. Last August a 19-year-old was driving an excavator on a site in Linfield, Sydney, when a metal rod flew up and became lodged in his head. In the same month a slab of concrete fell from a crane onto a worker causing back injuries at an inner-Sydney site. A 22-year-old worker lost his life when he was crushed by metal beams at a demolition site.

The list continues of “accidents”, not just in Sydney but on construction sites across Australia.

One of the most notorious sites is the Royal Adelaide Hospital which has been riddled with safety issues. Fifty sheets of wood fell more than two metres onto decking in one incident as a crane lost its load in November last year. It is sheer luck that no one was on the deck underneath. It was the second crane malfunction in one month.

It is not hard to find safety breaches. It is not uncommon to see unsafe scaffolding, sites not locked after hours, workers wearing runners or no hard hat, dust not hosed down, rubbish scattered along walkways, ladders not secured, and so on. For examples, visit hcfmeunsw.asn.au and click on photo galleries, Safety Shockers!.

In a number of the cases cited above, the CFMEU had previously warned employers of dangers, had called stop work meetings or made demands for inspections and engineers’ reports. But building contractors and companies act with impunity. State inspection authorities are grossly under-staffed and not carrying out the necessary inspections or enforcing health and safety regulations.

Building workers are constantly being hit by shonky contractors and developers, by phoenix companies, that fail to pay them their entitlements, even their wages in some instances. The same outfits go belly-up and re-emerge as a new company to rip off more workers. Employers sign workers up as contractors to avoid paying their workers’ compensation insurance, superannuation, sick leave and other entitlements.

They act with impunity, outside the law, putting workers’ and the public’s health and safety at risk and denying workers their entitlements. They know that at worst they might receive a slap on the wrist for these misdemeanours.

The union is the only force seriously attempting to protect workers from the criminality of their bosses. But this has been made far more difficult than ever thanks to a number of government measures.

Instead of pursuing the real criminals, the Abbott government is set to increase the powers of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) (at present an inspectorate under Fair Work umbrella, FWI) which needless to say does not hound employers.

The system does not jail negligent employers for the loss of life or serious injuries. But unions and their members face hefty fines and damages actions if they take any form of industrial action to save lives, reinstate sacked delegates or recoup unpaid or underpaid entitlements. Officials also face loss or suspension of their entry permit.

Unions and individual workers are also penalised if they take action for other reasons. The ABCC is now in the process of prosecuting 76 building workers – serving subpoenas on them one by one – for participating in a union/community rally for “local jobs and local content”. The workers were employed on the John Holland children’s hospital site in Perth and the rally was 12 months ago. They face fines of $10,200 each. (Abbott’s ABCC legislation, which has retrospective provisions, increases the maximum fine to $34,000 for individuals and $170,000 for unions.)

Last December the Federal Court fined CFMEU WA and its assistant secretary Joe McDonald a total of $193,600 for their role in “unlawful industrial action” at Citic Pacific’s Sino Iron Ore Pilbara site.

Federal Court judge J Barker said: “Mr McDonald’s conduct involves a calculated and careless attitude to the law governing the employment of persons by employers. It was calculated to cause disruption to employers carrying out building and construction work on the site and it was careless in that McDonald was aware of the legal consequences of his actions and pursued them nonetheless”.

The ABCC had taken McDonald and the union to court, claiming he had attended and entered the site on February 21, 2012. “He addressed an unauthorised meeting of 87 site employees. Seventy-seven workers subsequently withdrew their labour,” the judge said.

Legitimate trade union activity is outlawed. The aim of the hefty fines is to bankrupt unions and intimidate workers. In this instance, workers were dealing with safety concerns, the use and abuse of Section 457 visa workers who were being paid 40 percent less than local workers and an attempt to drive down wages and conditions of all workers on the site. The company was also attempting to deny the CFMEU the right to organise and collectively bargain.

The Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014, which Employment Minister Eric Abetz presented to Parliament, contains further limitations on the right of entry of union officials. It gives employers greater flexibility to undermine wage and penalty rates on an individual basis and in effect could see building companies shut the union out when enterprise agreements for new (greenfield) sites are determined.

An investigation into the construction industry is urgently required. There have been several Royal Commissions, the last one, launched by Tony Abbott as Minister for Industrial Relations in the Howard government, found evidence of massive corruption and criminality on the part of employers. The Cole Commission was used to clamp down on building and construction workers, and the ABCC was set up to destroy union in that industry.

The $66 million Royal Commission did not result in a single conviction for criminality and only one civil prosecution of a company – for paying strike pay! It was used to provide a blueprint for destroying unions in the industry – the ABCC. But the unions have survived.

So now we have Abbott back again, with a $100 million Royal Commission. This time there is no pretence of “even-handedness”. The inquiry is not into the industry but into the trade unions. The real criminal and corrupt elements – the Coalition’s employer mates – will not be under the microscope.

The findings will again be used to launch another round of attacks, on building unions, possibly deregistration of the CFMEU and an opening for the employer-friendly Australian Workers Union.

Without a strong, militant union presence, construction workers would be turned into slave labour, unpaid or underpaid for their labour, forced to work in unsafe conditions and arbitrarily sacked for speaking out. The cost would be huge in lives and injuries.

The government has so far got away with murder (literally and figuratively) in its treatment of asylum seekers, playing the race and “they are illegal” cards. They are not illegal, and even if they were, such barbaric treatment is not justified or legal under Australia’s justice system.

The CFMEU and other unions in the industry are the next in line. Abbott and Abetz have no intention of stopping there. The Maritime Union of Australia is also squarely in their sights. Once the stronger, more militant unions are out the way, the aim is to do over the rest of the union movement.

And it will not stop there. The defeat of organised labour would remove the main barriers to the government’s attack on left and progressive forces. It would remove the main barriers to its austerity measures, such as the abolition of bulk-billing, privatisation of Medicare and public education, slashing of pensions and unemployment benefits, and even worse.

It is imperative that the unions, left and progressive parties and all forces that support basic human and democratic rights unite now to defend our hard won, fundamental rights.

Next article – Manus Island tragedies – Major human rights questions

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