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Issue # 1417      1 July 2009

Who protects workers?

“CFMEU wins $1.2m backpay” ran a news story in September 2007, and a headline familiar to many workers over years of trade union struggles. But who has seen a headline declaring, “ABCC wins backpay for workers”? No one. Winning back wages from unscrupulous and corrupt employers is not what the Howard government’s Australian Building and Construction Commission does, nor what it was intended to do.

The ABCC cannot be accused of inactivity. Its political police force can be seen snooping around major construction sites, spying on and harassing workers, laying charges, summonsing innocent workers to secret interrogations sessions. The ABCC’s inspectorate moves swiftly in response to employer calls to remove trade union officials from workplaces. They have even been seen running around construction sites pulling down Eureka flags and removing union stickers and posters.

In an industry riddled with corporate corruption, underpayment of workers, theft of workers’ entitlements and serious breaches of occupational health and safety regulations, the ABCC has not managed to bring charges against, let alone gain a conviction against, a single employer! With a budget of $30 million last year an amazing lack of achievement by anyone’s standards.

Employers have gone on the offensive making the most of the ABCC and accompanying legislation to shut trade unions out of the workplace and rob workers of their legal entitlements. As a consequence building sites have become more dangerous under its watch.

The ABCC is not to be seen when trade unions raise safety issues. Take the case of Ark Tribe, a construction worker in South Australia, who faces a jail sentence for allegedly failing to turn up to a compulsory interrogation session with the ABCC. There was a dispute over safety breeches at the Flinders University site where he worked. The union called in Safework SA which issued prohibition notices and the company was then forced to address these issues.

Only after the dispute was over, when conditions were safer, only then did the ABCC make its appearance. It ignored employer breeches of the law, and set about an inquisition of union members on the site. This is classic ABCC behaviour. Ark is just the latest in a long line of trade unionists to be attacked and intimidated by the ABCC. He is an innocent, hard working, rigger, who had the audacity to belong to a trade union and now the courage to stand up for his rights.

“It’s a shameful reflection on this Labor government that an ordinary construction worker now faces the possibility of six months imprisonment today because the government has not removed the most extreme laws left behind by John Howard,” CFMEU SA secretary Martin O’Malley said. Ark and the CFMEU have the full support of the trade union movement. Labor’s amendments to the BCII Act leave Ark and tens of thousands of other building and construction workers as exposed as ever to the coercive interrogation powers of the ABCC (to be renamed Building Industry Inspectorate).

One of its most publicised exercises was in West Australia where 107 Leighton’s workers employed on the Perth to Mandurah railway project faced fines of $22,00 or more when the ABCC brought charges against them for taking “unlawful industrial action”. Their “unlawful behaviour”? Standing up for the rights of a union safety delegate who had been sacked.

The ABCC has spent millions of dollars in the courts. Even when their hollow, politically driven cases are thrown out of the court, they persist, hoping to drain union resources and intimidate and punish innocent workers for being trade unionists.

In one case, where the ABCC was seeking financial penalties against the plumbers’ union and a Queensland union official Federal Court judge Jeffrey Spender said the company’s bogus employment arrangements were an “example of dishonest or fraudulent financial engineering”, a “dishonest attempt’” to evade payment to the Australian Taxation Office, as well as its obligation to pay superannuation to the workers. Justice Spender said the case pursued by the ABCC “should not have been brought”. The ABCC should have, and had the power to, bring charges against the employer, but chose instead to hound the union and its officials – in effect protecting the employer.

Dave Noonan, the national secretary of the Construction Division of the CFMEU said, “as long these laws remain, the era of WorkChoices continues. We find it amazing that the Rudd Labor government, elected to restore Australian’s rights at work, should care so little about the rights of construction workers.”

Unions have vowed to step-up their campaign against the ABCC and will take their fight to the Labor Party’s national conference which begins on July 31. The ABCC is not protecting workers. The new Building Inspectorate will not protect workers.

It is the trade unions that protect workers. The ABCC and the laws that outlaw industrial action that must be repealed for trade unions to be able to do their job.

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