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Wednesday, 3 December 2003
Page: 23688


Mr ORGAN (7:23 PM) —In presenting the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2003 and the Building and Construction Industry Improvement (Consequential and Transitional) Bill 2003, the government would have us believe there are serious and critical problems with the building and construction industry. The member for Cowper has just talked about a so-called entrenched culture of intimidation and fear. I would suggest that a lot of the entrenched culture of intimidation and fear is on behalf of the bosses. These bills deal with critical problems within the building and construction industry, and these problems are supposedly centred on workers and their trade unions. That is right; when it comes to workers and unions, this government is all about extremist high drama and attacks on basic rights. And here is an attack in the form of a 200-page bill.

During the term of this government we have seen ugly attacks on unions such as the Patrick Stevedores conflict, with companies employing balaclava-clad security guards—goons as the member for Burke likes to call them—and Rottweiler attack dogs to deal with workers. And now the government wants us to see it all happen again. This time though it is a more clinical approach, where law is used as a weapon against workers and their families. The government has put forward these bills because it is trapped by its own paradoxical ideology, an ideology that seeks to enforce individualism onto workers against their individual will—and most especially, via chapter 6 of the first bill, to restrict the opportunities for collective action, despite the government's preference to decentralise wages and conditions of employment outcomes.

So on the one hand the government wants workers to negotiate directly with employers, but on the other hand it does not want them to be able to do it very well. That is the clear rationale behind these bills—to restrict the ability of workers to secure adequate wages and conditions in the building and construction industry, despite the reams of rhetoric to the contrary. That is why these bills seek to outlaw pattern bargaining, where workers can collectively negotiate against more than one employer or with one employer in more than one place. That is why these bills seek to reduce the instances where employees can take lawful industrial action and to increase the range of penalties if they do not climb legal and administrative hurdles before doing so.

In fact, the minister for workplace relations stated in his second reading speech to these bills that the purpose of collective action is the defeat of the operation of the law. Excuse me, but surely collective action must first be illegal? Or is that where the government has revealed that it wants to take the Australian community—that is, to outlaw all collective action? The other more realistic and even-handed way of looking at collective action is that it is the only way for workers to improve their pay and conditions in the absence of centralised wage fixing or to protect themselves from unnecessary or dangerous work practices. Under these bills, the government will restrict the ability of workers to do both, which can only be described as reprehensible.

If these bills become law, the construction industry will be transformed into one where workers cannot protect and advance their interests without first scaling legal and administrative mountains in a workplace where managerial discretion will rule the day. This legislative straightjacket is certain to make it harder for workers and their unions to campaign against unsafe work practices that affect individual building sites as well as the industry as a whole. As a result workers and the community that works, drives or walks on, under or near building sites will be at increased risk of death and serious injury.

Unions such as the CFMEU will be unable to protect their members and the public. Why? Because under section 72(1)(g) of these bills it will be illegal for a worker to take industrial action about safety issues unless they can satisfy a court that the action is:

... based on a reasonable concern about an imminent risk to his or her health or safety.

That is right: real and tragically accurate predictions about the safety of others—including colleagues, pedestrians, inexperienced workers and even government officials—are not and cannot be the business of workers. That is disgraceful. Worse still, if employees are guided by their conscience and take action to protect the lives of others, they would be liable for fines of up to $22,000 each and $110,000 for their unions. What kind of perverse logic is that? It is no more than the punishment of the rescuers; it is akin to suing a surf-lifesaving club for making a rescue or impounding an ambulance for attending a car crash.

Consider the recent tragedy of Sydney teenager Joel Exner, who fell to his death at work. Under the government's scenario, workers who demanded Joel be given appropriate safety training and equipment and then took action to make sure it happened would be liable for prosecution because they would be unable to show that Joel's safety constituted an imminent risk to themselves. I know CFMEU delegates in my electorate of Cunningham who, in recent weeks, have visited numerous sites and informed the bosses of various OH&S problems, but appropriate action has not been taken and the culture of slackness and disregard for basic safety precautions remains.

To be fair to the minister, these bills do create federal safety officers, but there is no certainty that these officers will act with vigour or that they will be adequately resourced. In fact I note that, from page 5 of the bills' explanatory memorandum, the government has allocated just $5 million for both the Federal Safety Commissioner and the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner to go about their business of protecting workers. That is just not enough. The minister's so-called `cop on the beat' is not very well resourced. Let us do some maths, Mr Speaker: page 18 of the statistical compendium to the Cole royal commission states that in 1996-97 there were 194,300 businesses in the building and construction industry; that $5 million equates to the grand sum of $25.73 per business.

Debate interrupted.