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Issue #1728      April 27, 2016

MAY DAY 2016

Workers’ rights are human rights

In this May Day issue of the Guardian, Anna Pha analyses and exposes the Turnbull’s government’s preparations for an unprecedented attack on organised labour, on the democratic rights of workers to defend hard-won gains, including the most fundamental right of workers: the right to withdraw their labour.

The Turnbull government is pushing to re-introduce the Australian Building and Construction Commission, originally introduced by the Howard government in 2005, the legislation it has used to trigger a double dissolution election. Like its predecessor, the ABCC discriminates against workers in the construction industry by applying a different, punitive set of laws to workers and their unions above and outside of the legal norms that apply to society as a whole.

Around one million workers will be affected because the new version of the Bill will extend the ABCC’s reach to all workers that supply, transport or prefabricate manufactured goods, including any ship that is travelling to and from an Australian port, to building sites.

Under the proposed ABCC legislation:

  • Workers would not have the right to silence, a fundamental right in current legal norms
  • They would face penalties of up to six months jail if they refused to answer questions about something as simple as a union meeting
  • Workers would not be able to have a lawyer of their choosing
  • EBAs containing clauses which provide for the employment of apprentices or older Australians and set maximum hours of work would be illegal

The ABCC has never had any role in investigating breaches of the criminal law. It deals with possible industrial law contraventions, which are and always have been civil, not criminal matters. This Bill would not change that situation at all.

Knowing full well that the ABCC cannot deal with criminal matters, Malcolm Turnbull used it as his excuse to prorogue Parliament and in doing so mislead the Governor-General, saying, “The government regards this legislation as of great importance for promoting jobs and growth, improving productivity and also promoting workplace safety through taking strong measures to deal with widespread and systematic criminality in the building and construction industry.”

Claims that productivity will increase by 20 percent under the ABCC are inaccurate, misleading and inconsistent with the findings of the government’s own Productivity Commission.

Workplace fatalities

The ABCC will impact on the rights of construction workers to have a safe workplace. The prohibition on agreements including safe working hours will lead to more deaths and injuries and more exploitation.

During the period of the Howard government’s WorkChoices and the ABCC, fatalities for all workers increased by more than 25 percent, while fatalities for construction workers skyrocketed from an average of 2.5 fatalities per 100,000 to almost five fatalities per 100,000 workers.

During the same period workplace fatalities in construction peaked at 48 deaths in 2006 and 51 deaths in 2007, making them the worst two years for deaths in construction in the last decade. (Work-related Traumatic Injury Fatalities Australia 2012, SafeWork Australia)

By contrast, following the abolition of the ABCC in 2012 some 30 deaths were reported, the lowest number of deaths in the past ten years (Source as above).

Workers need strong rights and strong unions to protect themselves from injury and death through cost-cutting and the ever-present desire of employers to put profits ahead of safety.

The Government’s plan to set up aggressive anti-worker bodies like the ABCC, with coercive powers designed to intimidate safety representatives and union activists, will lead to injuries and fatalities rising as they did under the previous ABCC.

The proposed ABCC Bill denies a number of civil liberty rights to workers in the construction industry, breaching the Australian government’s international human rights obligations under customary international law.

The Law Council of Australia (LCA) found the ABCC legislation includes “a number of features [that] are contrary to rule of law principles and traditional common law rights and privileges such as those relating to the burden of proof, the privilege against self-incrimination, the right to silence, freedom from retrospective laws and the delegation of law making power to the executive.”

The proposed ABCC legislation allows for current penalties for contravening industrial laws to be tripled for construction workers and their unions.

See the analysis The ABCC Mark II – Gestapo industrial relations laws

Next article – Editorial – Greed and deception – bank on it

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