Government sets up anti-union hit squad
for building industry
by Anna Pha Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott last week announced that the Federal Government will set up an interim taskforce to "investigate and police breaches of the Workplace Relations Act and other laws in the construction industry". This taskforce will operate until the Government implements its response to the final report of the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry. The Cole Royal Commission was set up a few months before the federal elections last year, and is due to hand down its final report by December 6, 2002. It has so far held public hearings in Victoria, NSW, Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania, hearing from 445 witnesses. It has also held "extensive private consultations". The CFMEU has been constantly thwarted and frustrated during the hearings, as the Commissioner has repeatedly cut them off from responding to employer and government allegations, being told their turn will come later. They are still waiting for their turn, and Commissioner Terry Cole has presented a five-page interim report on which the Government is already acting. Last week's interim report and Abbott's prompt response were proof, as if any were needed, of the political intent of holding such an inquiry. From the initial restricted terms of reference, the Government's anti- union, anti-worker agenda was clear. This has been confirmed by the conduct of the Commission and the interim report. "The Commission is only half way through its business and the union is still yet to give our substantial evidence, but the Government is ready to investigate and prosecute workers and unions", said the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). In the interim report, Commissioner Cole says, "I accordingly recommend the establishment of an interim body to monitor conduct, to investigate and, if appropriate, facilitate proceedings to ensure adherence to industrial, criminal and civil laws pending the delivery and consideration of my final report and establishment of any permanent agency. "The interim body should have power to receive material from this Commission, complete investigations and instigate or facilitate any necessary proceedings. "The body should be staffed by a multi-disciplinary group comprising lawyers, building and construction industry investigators, police investigators, financial analysts and general analysts", Cole said. The composition of the interim taskforce gives some idea of its functions. To start with there is no mention of union representatives, workers' compensation bodies, or occupational health and safety officers from building sites. The industry practices and conduct that the Commissioner highlights give a good indication of where the taskforce is headed. The following are examples of its findings: * "widespread disregard of, or breach of the enterprise bargaining provisions of the "Workplace Relations Act 1996""; * "widespread disregard of, or breach of, the freedom of association provisions" of the Act; * "widespread requirement by head contractors for sub-contractors to have union endorsed enterprise bargaining agreements before being permitted to commence work on major projects in state capital central business districts"; * "widespread requirement for employees of sub-contractors to become members of unions ..." * "widespread disregard of the terms of enterprise bargaining agreements once entered into"; * "widespread application of, and surrender to, inappropriate industrial pressure"; * "widespread use of occupational health and safety as an industrial tool"; * "unlawful strikes, and threats of unlawful strikes"; * "underpayment of employees' entitlements". As can be seen from the above examples, the focus is on eliminating strikes and other trade union actions, getting rid of union enterprise bargaining agreements and collective bargaining, deunionising building sites and enforcing arbitrary rule by employers. This is confirmed by Abbott in his announcement of the hit squad: "The construction industry strike rate in 2001 was five times that of all the industries average". There is a reference to departure from proper occupational health and safety standards (does it mean employers or employees?), but don't hold your breath on that one. There is also a general catch-all — "disregard of the rule of law" — but no indication of which laws. Employer tax rorts are not mentioned in the list. Nor are any suggestions made for preventing the theft of workers' entitlements. Commissioner Cole is concerned "that the Office of Employment Advocate is insufficiently funded and staffed to undertake the tasks referred to". The OEA is notorious for its spying and other anti-union activities on building and construction sites to hinder trade union recruitment and industrial action. Obviously this network of Government spies and pimps has not succeeded in doing the job for which they were appointed. The Commission's report says that its investigative tasks will be wound down and concluded between September and November. This leaves very little time for the unions to put their case. The December deadline raises the question of whether the Government is planning to swoop during the Christmas-New Year shutdown.