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Tuesday, 9 August 2005
Page: 95

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (8:24 PM) —The Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2005 is the latest bill in a long line of extreme legislation introduced by the Howard government to fracture Australian industry. At the outset I must say that I do not come to the debate with clean hands. I am pleased to say that I am the son of a building worker who, through the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties, took part in the struggle to improve the lot of building workers in New South Wales and, as a result of those improvements, the lot of building workers in other states and territories of Australia. I am also pleased to say that my brother is the state secretary of the New South Wales branch of the CFMEU. He maintains the commitment to improving the lot of building workers and their families.

It is about time we confronted what this legislation is about. It is about driving a wedge between building workers and their employers—dividing building workers, their families and their employers. It is a bill with one 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 bill was clearly born out of a political exercise. That political exercise was the royal commission headed by Justice Cole. Guess when it was called—just before the 2001 election, when the government thought they would need this bill rather than Tampa.

The facts show that at that time there was no major crisis in the building and construction industry. No-one asked for the inquiry—not the unions, the industry, the clients or the workers. Building activity investment at the time was robust. There was no attempt by the government to sit down with the unions, the industry and other stakeholders and talk to them about productivity, because this government is not interested in productivity; it is consumed with confrontation and hatred. I suggest to the House that the Cole royal commission was just another example of the government’s extreme approach in dealing with difficult issues. It is not prepared to do the hard yards—to sit down with people and work through problems to reach consensus and find solutions.

The alternative approach was pursued by Labor in government, through the Construction Industry Development Agency, which extended across the departments of industrial relations and industry. That agency was about reform involving government, clients, investors, unions, building workers and employers. It put in place a new culture, which was not just about improvements in the building industry but, more importantly, about undertaking construction projects ahead of time and ahead of budget. The record shows it had a lot of success. The third runway at Sydney airport, the new Toyota plant at Altona in western Melbourne and the ABC headquarters in Melbourne are just a few examples of the success of the construction industry reform process pursued by the Hawke and Keating Labor governments. That compares with the approach of the Howard government, which is really about putting in place a legislative framework which enables bad employers and insensitive governments to ride roughshod over the rights of ordinary Australian workers who happen to disagree with them.

The government raises the question of where the opposition stands on the issue of cleaning up the building industry. Some people have short memories. I do not; I was part of it. I want to make it clear to the House this evening that I do not, will not and never have supported the corruption that was said to exist in the industry and was used to justify the establishment of the royal commission. More importantly, Labor in government delivered on that very issue. It was the Hawke and Keating Labor governments and the Cain Victorian Labor government—with the support of the ACTU and its affiliates—that moved to clean up corruption in the industry in the 1980s and deregister the BLF. That was a pretty tough process which we took on on our own. We achieved significant improvements in productivity and the development of a new culture in the industry because we were prepared to do the hard yards.

I was directly involved in the campaign against corruption in the building industry, when I was a member of the ACTU executive and, in the later years, when I was president of the ACTU. I am very proud of our achievements in not only cleaning up the industry but also putting in place, whilst we were in government, a new culture and commitment to pursuing the issues which count in the industry. We solved the problems and that produced results for investors and building workers in Australia. Compare that to the approach of this government. I suggest to the House that this government has never been about cleaning up the building industry. Its real goal has been, and always will be, to smash the union movement and hand power back to employers who have no regard for the welfare of building workers and their families.

I also remind the House that, despite its inglorious end, the Builders Labourers Federation and a host of other construction unions have achieved a lot for working Australians over the years. It was under the leadership of people such as Pat Clancy of the Building Workers Industrial Union that the building industry was civilised through the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties. Some people laugh at the suggestion that working in the building industry was tough. I intend to deal with some of the conditions of employment that building workers did not have during that period. I saw directly in my own household the sacrifices my parents made in just trying to make ends meet, because of the lack of decent working conditions for building workers in the post Second World War period. The struggle commenced on building sites. Yes, it was a struggle, and we are not ashamed of the fact that it was a struggle. It was about bringing to building workers a sense of decency and dignity at work. Building workers suffered the worst conditions and pay. It was not until the rise of unions and the prolonged economic boom after the Second World War that this began to change through—guess what?—collectivism and struggle by union officials, with the support of their membership, and a willingness by employers to sit down to negotiate and work out what was appropriate.

We should also not forget that the Cole royal commission did not uncover the so-called endemic corruption or criminality by union officials, which the government used as an excuse to set up the commission. But that is not important to the government! It was not important that it cost $60 million of taxpayers’ money to establish the royal commission. It was not spent on confronting the real issues that troubled the industry, such as trade shortages, health and safety, death on the job, transportability of trade qualifications across state and territory borders, reform of the workplace culture, stamping out cash-in-hand and illegal migrants. They were not key issues in the mind of the Howard government with respect to how to improve productivity in the building industry. The government spent $60 million with one aim: to create a political issue—rather than trying to do something about apprenticeships, rather than trying to do something about skills shortages and rather than trying to do something about delivering on time and on budget in the building industry.

It is also worth while reminding the House that this government spent $60 million to set up a framework to erode the rights of building workers, to reduce their wages and conditions of employment, while spending only $30 million inquiring into the HIH collapse, where there was real corruption. But I suppose, when it comes to HIH, it was their mates at work. So the truth is that it is about time this government got its priorities right. Defeating the unions and eroding the rights of working men and women is clearly more important to the Howard government than Australia’s biggest corporate disaster and the huge social inequities still suffered by our Indigenous community.

I now want to deal with some of the conditions actually won by building workers, which this government now wants to erode. I have experienced them first-hand as the son of a building worker. The effect of this bill is to try and ensure that building workers will be second-class citizens with weaker awards, less access to unions and a reduced right to protect their rights through industrial action. So let us deal with a little of the history. I want to take people back to the 1950s, when building workers were expected to go to work without any permanency of employment. You were hired for the time of the job. Your ability to feed your family was related to whether, at the completion of the job, you had the capacity to find another building job as soon as possible. There was no permanency. There was no guarantee of 52 weeks of employment a year. It is also interesting to note that, during this period, when it rained there was no pay. There was no wet pay, there was no sick pay and, in most instances, little attention was paid to issues of health and safety in the building industry. So we actually achieved through the fifties and the sixties the right of building workers to wet pay and sick pay.

With regard to annual leave, we had to set up a fund to enable workers to accrue annual leave by payment into a building industry fund. Long service leave was regarded as a right by most Australian workers, but building workers had to follow work from one job to another and were very rarely able to achieve a period of sustained employment with an individual employer in order to win a right to long service leave. So we had to set up a portability of long service leave scheme to guarantee to building workers what was received by all other workers in Australia.

One of the major achievements of the 1980s was the development of industry superannuation. Building workers never had access to superannuation, just as they never had access to long service leave, annual leave, sick pay or wet pay until we established schemes to meet the needs of these industries. Superannuation was put in place, but people should not forget that building workers traded other improvements in wages to achieve these benefits. Superannuation is a direct example. They traded improvements in wages to achieve, firstly, three per cent and then successive improvements in superannuation to achieve the capacity to retire with some dignity. One should not forget that the capacity of many building workers to work at their trade throughout what would be a normal working life does not exist, because of the nature of working in the building industry. Take bricklayers, for example. They have limited capacity to make big money because of the arduous nature of the job. They need these entitlements to guarantee some safety and protection and the right to give some security in life to their families.

Even with the improvements in health and safety in Australia, we still have an industry which sees over 50 deaths per year. It is a dangerous industry. These conditions are important to building workers, but more importantly they are about security for building workers’ spouses and families in the case of accident or, worse still, death on the job. Some on the other side smirk and think these issues are not important. I would like to see them suffer some of the conditions experienced by building workers and their families over what has been a long and extended period of achievement to bring some decency to the lives of building industry workers.

Finally they actually achieved the introduction of severance pay. Frankly, I think they are entitled to some severance pay, just as members of parliament receive severance pay when they depart this House, just as Australian public servants receive severance pay when they depart employment with the Australian Public Service and just as is the case with many employees throughout the length and breadth of Australia. The building industry unions actually achieved severance pay, just as they achieved all the other conditions I have referred to this evening. So I make no apology for the struggle of building unions over many years to actually bring a sense of decency to the lives of building workers and their families.

I also contend that we should focus on the issues that really count in the building industry. They are not all about the destruction of building industry unions by a government that is drunk with power. If you have any doubts about that, go chronologically through what the government has done since the last election to set up confrontation with the union movement, especially with building industry unions. I will take you back to the first act. The government, which supposedly believes in the right of choice, was re-elected on 9 October 2004. Employers actually chose to negotiate with building industry unions in Victoria, so what did we have the government doing on 28 October? It tried to intervene to stop the certification of CFMEU EBAs in Victoria and to limit the types of clauses that could be included in those agreements. So much for free and open negotiations between employers, their workers and their unions! I would have thought that would have been up to the parties. If they want extra annual leave or if they want extra superannuation, that is their business. It is not the business of government to say to those workers, ‘We’re going to intervene in the EBA certification process and we’ll determine what is in your EBA.’

On 29 October the government took a further step. What did it want to do? It wanted to legislate to stop unions renegotiating EBAs ahead of its new industrial legislation—and that is what it did on 9 December. On 11 November we see the states and territories on the Howard government’s hit list of whom it was going to have a war with on the industrial relations front. Take AusLink: you either sign up to the AusLink code of practice or you do not get Commonwealth government funding for, for example, the Pacific Highway or the Geelong bypass. It is not about sitting down and trying to work out what is possible; it is Big Brother from Canberra telling state and territory governments, ‘You’ll do what you’re told when you’re told,’ with one objective: to cripple building industry unions’ capacity to defend workers’ wages and conditions, to provide a fair standard of living for the workers and their spouses and to guarantee that at work they have a capacity for organisation to guarantee a safe workplace. One of the most important issues to me in employment is an expectation that when you go to work you know you are going to come home at night not having lost your life or without having encountered an accident or without one of your workmates having lost his or her life. Those are pretty fundamental issues, and in all surveys of workers those priorities always come up. The issues of health and safety and of having a safe working environment are the most important issues in workers’ minds when thinking about employment.

It is about time that the House confronted the fact that, if this government is really serious about the building and construction industry, about improving productivity and about working towards a culture which guarantees that projects are built ahead of time and ahead of budget, it will adopt an alternative agenda. My experience, having actually been part of the previous Hawke and Keating governments’ construction industry reform process, is that the issues are still there. These are the types of issues that need attending to on the job. I see smirks on the other side of the House over some of these issues. I do not think it is funny that, in terms of health and safety, there are still 50 lives lost per year on building and construction industry jobs around Australia. That is not funny; that is a very serious issue. Any loss of life at work is a very serious issue, something that all members of this House should be concerned about because fellow Australians are involved. They have a right to go to work and to undertake their work in a safe environment. It is not a laughing matter.

I come to the issue of training. What is jacking up the cost of building industry jobs at the moment is the competition amongst employers for skilled labour. We have a huge shortage of skilled labour. When you add that to the huge demand in Australia at the moment for raw materials, such as concrete and steel, you understand why construction costs are actually going through the roof. We have contributed to our own problems through a lack of apprenticeships, skill shortages and an inability to get trained workers when we need them. There have been problems between states and territories over the transportability of trade qualifications. This should have been fixed long ago. It should be one of the prime objectives of any reform process in the building industry to get this right once and for all.

We all should pay our taxes, but go around the building industry and see, unfortunately, the prevalence of cash in hand payments. If those people were pulling their weight and paying their taxes, we would be paying less tax. Unfortunately, the industry is ripe for that, just as is the case in some instances with the existence of illegal workers—‘It’s cash in hand. We won’t dob you in, in terms of your inability to actually work here legally, if you cop this amount of money in the hand and keep your mouth shut.’ Tax evasion and productivity are all interrelated.

At the moment there are serious issues in the building industry that we have to confront as a community. As I said at the outset, I will never defend corruption in any institution—and I was part of cleaning up the building industry when I was President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. It is about time that the government stopped being consumed with crushing the union movement and the state and territory governments and started to think about a serious reform agenda. Its own extreme view of life will not produce improvements in productivity on building industry sites nor will it create a culture which guarantees that we build projects ahead of time and ahead of budget. I do not support this bill. To me the historic fact is that building workers have rights to collectively organise and bargain. This bill is about eroding those rights and it will achieve nothing for building industry employers. (Time expired)