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Wednesday, 3 December 2003
Page: 23672


Ms GEORGE (6:12 PM) —I rise to speak in opposition to the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2003 and to also remind members on the other side of the House that, since the election of the Howard government, there has been a calculated strategy to try and destroy the effectiveness of organised labour. Very early in the piece, the government actually nominated the industries that they thought would take the focus. They named the waterfront industry, the meat-processing industry, the coal industry and the construction industry. We saw with the waterfront industry a strategy different to this one but a strategy that failed in the end to do what the intention was—and that was to get rid of the MUA as the organised union on the waterfront. The strategy then was different. It was the sacking of a whole work force and the training of people in Dubai to come back and work as scab labour. The union movement responded magnificently and collectively in defence of the rights of those workers to continue to be represented by the union of their choice.

We have seen prolonged disputation in the coal sector. Cases have been before the commission for years and years. We have seen industrial provocation in the meat processing sector and now in the fourth industry that was on the hit list—the building and construction industry. The government missed with their strategy on the waterfront, because it repelled the ordinary Australian to see images of men with balaclavas and dogs on chains and of workers being transported offshore to be trained in union busting. So, at the end of the day, as I say, the MUA continues to remain the union of choice of workers in that industry, and it continues to remain a highly unionised sector.

In construction we have seen a quite different strategy but with the same outcome. Clearly there was an attempt to erode the bargaining strength of a very well organised union, the CFMEU. On this occasion we saw an absolute waste of $60 million of taxpayers' funds to set up a royal commission, which was nothing more than a witchhunt into the industry. To any fair-minded person, the commission was flawed because of its narrow focus, which concentrated almost exclusively on the union delegate structure and the membership of unions. To those who want to argue that it was fair and impartial let me just say that, of its hearing time, the commission devoted 90 per cent to allegations that were adverse to unions and only three per cent to allegations against employers.

I am told by the unions that the commission was provided with the names of about 200 companies suspected of illegal or inappropriate behaviour but only one company was thoroughly investigated. And yet we know that in that industry there continues to be a pattern of employer breaches on issues such as tax avoidance, collusive tendering, use of strategic liquidations, failure to comply with OH&S standards and small companies going out of existence and leaving their employees without their legitimate entitlements. We also know that it is an industry rife with the use of illegal immigrants—who, obviously, are employed to drive down wages and conditions in that industry. So again I say to members who want to argue it was an impartial assessment of the industry: the record speaks for itself. Incredibly, there was not one finding of unlawful conduct relating to underpayment of workers' entitlements, debts owing to small business or issues of tax avoidance, sham subcontracting or phoenix companies. Given all this, it is not surprising that 87 per cent of findings of unlawful conduct were made against workers and unionists.

We hear incredibly sweeping generalisations made by the government about this industry. I will just quote one coming from the previous minister. He talked about an `entrenched culture of lawlessness coupled with widespread inappropriate practices that act against choice, productivity and safety'. I know that industry well; I know the people who work and operate in it—and I reject those wide-ranging generalisations. In fact, if we look at the incidents of so-called `illegal action' in the commission, we see that many of them were unprotected action of short duration which involved a stoppage of no more than a few hours and frequently involved issues to do with site working conditions and occupational health and safety matters. That is the appropriate responsibility of unions—to ensure that site working conditions and safety standards are maintained.

I want to raise very quickly the issue of occupational health and safety in that industry. In jobs in the building and construction industry, approximately one worker dies every week. Recently we had the tragic death of a young man—I think it was on his third day at work—who, working without a safety harness, fell through scaffolding to his death. Not long before that, a couple of years ago, a similarly employed young man, an apprentice at the time, also met a tragic death resulting from unsafe practices at work. I find it amazing that some years down the track, even though clearly the employer was found negligent, the amount of money awarded in that case was a mere $20,000 for the loss of life. Just in the last couple of weeks, his family has reported that the company has gone belly up and the family has received only $1,800 of that very small settlement that was awarded for loss of life.

Let us not underestimate the difficulties in this industry. It is a difficult industry; it is an industry that, on international standards, is doing well in terms of productivity measures. I do not think we want to be confused into thinking that the kind of rhetoric we hear from this government applies to the overwhelming majority of people on both employer and employee sides who work in that sector. Of course, to deal with any alleged illegal or standover activity, any allegations of criminal behaviour, we have a police force. Noone on this side of the chamber would ever argue that, if someone acts in a manner that is inappropriate—for example, exhibiting any kind of standover behaviour—they should not be dealt with by the authorities with the powers to deal with that kind of behaviour.

So let us not confuse the issues and use these sweeping generalisations. We know what the agenda is. It is an agenda that has been relentless. It has been pursued since this government was elected. It has been pursued on the waterfront, it has been pursued in meat processing and it has been pursued in the coal industry. Now, finally, after a political witch-hunt, it appears that the government wants to wreak revenge on the CFMEU and its members. Looking at the details of the bill and the detailed proposals, we are really getting a rerun of all the provisions of the so-called second wave of industrial changes which, thankfully for all concerned, have been rejected consistently in the Senate. We have here a revisiting of all those provisions—but now to apply specifically to one industry alone.

We are told that there will be a new commission: the Australian building and construction commission. Really it is a new police force on sites—the new cop on the beat. We are told that this office will be a statutory body but it will receive written instructions from the minister—so how can it be truly independent? All it will end up being is another partisan political institution, like the Office of the Employment Advocate. So it is totally unnecessary and undesirable, and it achieves nothing.

This sets up a climate of fear for people on the job. I am particularly concerned about the proposed power of the commissioner to require people to attend a hearing and answer questions in relation to any investigation he is undertaking. For example, this would allow people to be called in to answer questions under oath about why they did or did not take certain forms of action or why they did or did not vote in a particular way. I think that is quite a frightening prospect: to be dragging people from the shop floor in front of a commissioner of what will, in the end, be a truly political outfit. I am concerned also that the power of the commission enables it to engage a loss assessor to determine the cost of industrial action to an employer. It makes the possibility of adverse damages findings very real, which is a very real deterrent to the taking of legitimate industrial action. Essentially, it amounts to intimidation designed to create fear amongst those who work on building sites and fear for those whose responsibility is to protect their best interests. So we do not need a new police force on the beat on construction sites.

Similarly, the bill re-runs the proposition of outlawing pattern bargaining in that industry, even though both unions and employers see the benefits of pattern bargaining in that industry. It suits their needs. Here we have a government which talks on the one hand about employers and employees reaching agreement but which, in a very interventionist way, is telling this industry alone what agreements are and are not acceptable.

I want to talk about award stripping. This is a common refrain. I can remember very clearly the Prime Minister in his election speeches assuring Australian workers that nobody would be worse off. You only have to look at their real experiences to know how much worse off people have been under this government. The award-stripping exercise was one of the very early proposals introduced by this government. Now here we have it again for the building industry. You can understand why workers and unions get very upset—because a lot of these conditions have been written into their awards as a result of longstanding campaigns that go back many years.

I want to read from the list of issues that are potentially at stake in the building and construction awards. Workers may lose such things as: accident make-up pay, the times of day that count as ordinary time or overtime, and the times at which rostered days off can be taken. Workers will lose the clauses requiring an employer to record start and finish times and hours of work. As I say, accident make-up pay will be left out of the minimum conditions of their award, as will another important provision—that is, the ratio of apprentices to tradespeople. Clauses relating to training and education will go. The right of their award to specify a particular super fund will also be abolished, as will any restrictions on part-time and casual work. We all know that job insecurity and the growth in precarious employment is a really big issue, and here we see it again. The government wants to delete any restrictions on part-time or casual work in their award. So you can see that we have another re-run of the award-stripping exercise and the possibility that unions and their members will lose the conditions of entitlement that have been written into their award over a long period of time.

Another issue is limiting the right of a union to enter work sites. This is clearly in breach of freedom of association provisions. It is just ridiculous to think that, under these provisions, the union would have to give both the employer and the commission 24 hours notice before going onto a site. I believe the provision is that if they have gone on to a site with the purpose of recruiting new members to the union, quite a legal activity, they are not allowed to follow them up for six months after that. That is just absolutely ludicrous. You go onto a site to provide a service and yet you are going to be constrained in terms of any follow-up meetings that may occur as a result of your recruiting activities on the job. The bill, again, pays lip-service to the notion of freedom of association while trying to erode it in a very mechanistic manner.

The issue of secret ballots again raises its head. It is very apparent in the bill that the government wants to severely limit the right of workers in this industry to strike. Again, that is in defiance of international conventions, but that does not seem to worry the government. The International Labour Organisation has repeatedly told this government that Australia's laws about freedom of association and the right to strike do not conform to minimum standards adopted in ILO conventions. Specifically, the ILO has already said that these fall short of the convention, because current practice does not provide that legal protection extend to industrial action taken on a multi-employer or industry-wide basis. Also there is no protection under current law for action taken in sympathy with protected action taken by other workers. Furthermore, the Industrial Relations Commission's power to terminate a bargaining period goes well beyond the scope of essential services, and we have no protection in this country applying in the case where industrial action is taken in support of workers' social and economic interests.

The ILO has already made rulings on the kinds of proposals that have been brought to this House in the bills that we are debating. So it seems that you can completely ignore the fact that we are signatories to these labour standards, and have been for a long time. We are seeing here, once again, an attempt to introduce punitive and restrictive measures on the right to freely organise and the right to strike, despite the ILO's concerns about those measures not meeting minimum standards.

In conclusion, I support the sentiments that have been expressed by our shadow minister, and I want to reinforce them. We are voting against this bill because we see it as part of a persistent pattern by this government to erode the bargaining capacity of working Australians. This bill and its transitional provisions again confirm that this government has a one-sided, confrontational approach to reform.

If there are matters to be resolved, let us look at them. My understanding is that the Secretary of the ACTU has already made the constructive proposal that the parties ought to sit down and deal with any issues that need to be dealt with. That is a very practical suggestion but, again, one that has been rejected—because this is not about real solutions to real problems; this is, yet again, a one-sided, confrontational approach that is so common from this government. The bill does nothing to address the very serious issues that confront many workers in that industry, like the non-payment of employee entitlements and the well-known practices of tax evasion and tax avoidance.

It is for those reasons that we will be rejecting these bills, as we have rejected numerous others that have been brought to this chamber. I think our shadow minister has referred to the `dirty dozen bills'. I think we are now up to 13 or 14, and the pattern goes on and the rejections continue. (Time expired)