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Issue #1847      November 7, 2018

Editorial

Scrap the ABCC

From the start, the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) was given unprecedented coercive powers to interrogate innocent workers and union officials. Failure to turn up for an interrogation session or refusal to inform on fellow workers and repeat what they said at a union meeting carries an obligatory six-month jail sentence. The interrogation might be a hundred or more kilometres from where the worker lives, but the worker must pay all costs, including for loss of work, to attend.

Under the BCII Act building workers and union officials face individual fines of tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars a day as well as millions of dollars of uncapped damages claims from employers for “unlawful” conduct. Even in the case of action to protect health and safety they face the threat of these penalties.

Basic, internationally recognised legal norms have been overturned, such as the right to remain silent and right to a lawyer of your own choosing. The onus of proof has been turned on its head, compulsory interrogations are held in secret and the warrants are issued not by a court but by the ABCC itself. The Act bringing the ABCC into existence even denies innocent building workers and union officials the basic democratic rights that are afforded those accused of serious crimes or acts of terror.

It is a bill with the objective to erode the hard-won rights of building construction workers and, in some instances, to hand back exclusive unfettered power to a small number of ruthless employers who have no regard to the health and safety, and wages and conditions of their employees.

The Rudd/Gillard Labor government retained this industry police force – introduced by the Howard government – which spends millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money a year hounding union officials attempting to enter workplaces over safety, underpayment, loss of entitlements, and other issues, accusing unions and their officials of “breaking the law”. The law they are “breaking” is the “right of entry” law, a barrier that prevents them from legally carrying out their legitimate trade union business and protecting their members from the criminal actions by employers who are rewarded with the guarantee of no more union visits.

For decades trade union officials freely entered workplaces, checked out working conditions of all employees, inspected wages and working hours books, attended to safety issues, assisted members with problems and ensured that employers were complying with their legal obligations.

They were free to talk to workers during meal and other breaks and actively recruit and organise in the workplace. They exercised one of the most fundamental basic trade union rights – right of entry.

Up until the mid-1980s a system of centralised union-negotiated awards governed minimum wages and working conditions.

Awards not only covered wages, hours or work, penalty rates and many other important condition of work, but contained “Time Record” and “Right of Entry” clauses which gave union representatives (authorised by the union secretary) considerable rights to enter workplaces, speak to workers and inspect time and wages records where a breach of the award was suspected.

Historically, the Hawke-Keating Labor governments commenced the process of dismantling the comprehensive system of centralised awards in the 1980s, with a shift in focus to enterprise-based determination of wages and working conditions. But it took the Howard government and its Workplace Ministers Peter Reith, Kevin Andrews and Tony Abbott to emasculate the centralised system of trade union-negotiated awards and gut awards to “20 allowable matters”. Amongst the key provisions that were not just removed from awards but outlawed in enterprise agreements were basic trade union rights including the right of entry and free access to time and wage records of all employees.

When the Rudd Labor government was elected in 2007 there were expectations in trade union circles that the right of entry would be restored; it was not.

The union movement has a fight on its hands to restore right of entry.

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