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Thursday, 15 May 2014
Page: 3845


Mrs PRENTICE (Ryan) (10:00): I rise today to speak on the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014, recognising that the coalition government is yet again delivering on its election promises. Labor stands in this place today announcing that they will oppose this bill without even letting it go through to the Senate committee process. As the first government speaker on this bill I would like to start by responding to some of the comments made by the shadow minister. While it may come as a shock to those opposite, as they often forget their own election commitments, this bill seeks to deliver on some aspects of Labor's 2007 election policy, Forward with Fairness; specifically the introduction of right of entry provisions and individual flexibility arrangements and closing the strike first, talk later loophole. Labor's policy clearly stated that under Labor's system awards would provide the parameters within which flexibility arrangements could be made under an award flexibility clause. This could include matters such as rostering and hours of work and all-up rates of pay, provisions that certain award conditions may not apply where an employee is paid above a fixed percentage as set out in the award, and an arrangement to allow the employee to start and finish work early to allow them to collect their children from school without the employer paying additional penalty rates for the early start.

I would like to identify how non-threatening these proposed amendments are. Extending the termination period in the legislation from 28 days to 13 weeks replicates a decision of the Fair Work Commission that is already in place. It is already the case today that non-monetary benefits can apply subject to the better off overall test—this just clarifies its operation. As the lowest paid workers on modern awards can currently enter into an IFA, there is little reason to allow union bosses to stop higher paid workers on EBAs from being able to enter into an IFA. Allow me to be clear: this bill is in no way a return to policies of the past. It merely clarifies the operation of the IFAs that were in Labor's Fair Work Act and in Labor's policy taken to the 2007 election and strongly supported by the union movement. Julia Gillard herself stated in September 2009:

Fair Work, in complete contrast to Work Choices, allows for Individual Flexibility Arrangements (IFA) which ensure that employees are always better off overall against the underlying award or enterprise agreement. Individual Flexibility Arrangements are not individual statutory agreements.

It is a mystery why Labor is opposing this bill, especially in respect of right of entry and strike first, talk later, as in 2007 Julia Gillard stated:

We will make sure that current right of entry provisions stay. We understand that entering on the premises of an employer needs to happen in an orderly way. We will keep the right of entry provisions.

At the National Press Club debate on 8 November 2007 she adamantly stated that she was

… happy to do whatever you would like. If you'd like me to pledge to resign, sign a contract in blood, take a polygraph, bet my house on it, give you my mother as a hostage, whatever you'd like.

One of Julia Gillard's media releases stated:

We would not want to see changes to the right of entry systems that jeopardise work performance.

Another one said:

As of today—

28 August 2007—

federal Labor will maintain the existing right-of-entry rules without exception.

Kevin Rudd himself stated in April 2007:

Industrial disputes are serious. They hurt workers, they hurt businesses, they can hurt families and communities, and they certainly hurt the economy.

He said that employees 'will not be able to strike unless there has been genuine good faith bargaining.' So, it eludes me why Labor is opposing their own election commitments and undertakings. At the end of the day, it should not come as a surprise. They did it with the carbon tax and they are doing it again today. Those opposite have no shame when it comes to defying the trust of the Australian people. The coalition pledged to improve the fair work laws; specifically, greenfields agreements, union right of entry, individual flexibility arrangements and a number of other Fair Work Act Review Panel recommendations that were ignored by the previous government.

Before the election I was appointed as a member of the coalition's Australian Building and Construction Commission working group, charged with the task of examining the viability of re-establishing the ABCC. The working group was presented with clear evidence that aggressive and militant union behaviour is commonplace in the building and construction sector. Site shutdowns, illegal strike action and other industrial disruptions occur regularly. The CFMEU and other unions frequently use purported safety issues as an excuse for industrial action. Coercion of individuals and companies is a tool frequently used by the CFMEU and its officials. There is troubling evidence of increasing corruption and criminality in the construction industry. Key construction unions, particularly the CFMEU, behave as if they are above the law. For example, they routinely ignore return-to-work court orders. Through these practices, the CFMEU and other unions have substantial industrial power and leverage which they use to impose uneconomic and unreasonable employment terms on head contractors and, through them, on subcontractors and across the industry through pattern agreements. In addition, the unions exercise control over what would ordinarily be commercial decisions, such as which subcontractors a head contractor may use, and over detailed operational issues such as whether a site operates beyond core hours.

Union militancy in the construction sector has profound economic and social consequences. To a significant extent there is an environment of criminality and loss of respect for the rule of law. Subcontractors are often exposed to coercion from the CFMEU. In the Queensland Children's Hospital dispute, although subcontractors received cheques from the CFMEU, pursuant to court orders that they be compensated for their loss, the CFMEU intimidated a number of the subcontractors into not cashing those cheques. The unions' power has increased because, at the command of the unions, the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government terminated the ABCC, which the Howard Government had established, replacing it with a much weaker agency, Fair Work Building and Construction. Under the Australian Building and Construction Commission productivity increased and there were average lower construction costs of 3.4 per cent, a 2.1 per cent increase in overall construction activity and an overall combined effect of $7.5 billion in increased living standards in current dollar terms.

I have had many constituents inform me of their run-ins with the CMFEU. Earlier last year a gentleman who owns a small earth-moving business in Brisbane explained to me how he is being shut out of potential contracts by the CFMEU as he refuses to sign their EBA and that he thus receives no contracts for city works, suffers continual disruption during jobs and has the unions dictating terms and controlling businesses and employee selection.

Mr Perrett interjecting

Mrs PRENTICE: The net financial losses relating to this exceed $500,000.

Another constituent of mine has expressed his concern over being bullied by the CFMEU into entering unfair EBAs now which will lock him into years of uneconomic and unreasonable workplace practice. The unions know that the coalition government is set on re-establishing the ABCC and is now bullying contractors into signing dishonourable EBAs before this legislation takes effect.

Constituents have contacted my office telling me they are shopfitters trying to work at the Indooroopilly Shopping Centre site in my electorate of Ryan. I note the member for Moreton did not exactly support those shopfitters at the time. They had tried to gain access to their sites and were stopped by the CFMEU picket line and told that if they did not have a union EBA they would not be working in the centre. They finally managed to get some workers onto the site; however, there was a line of unionists constantly watching and questioning their workers. The union again made it clear that if they did not enter into an EBA the work would stop.

The shopfitters then took to the local media. The Courier Mail also covered their plight in the weekend paper, stating:

Frightened “mum and dad” operators have revealed members of the CFMEU are using “safety concerns” to enter retail outlets, which have been handed over from developer Multiplex, so they can coerce the small operators into signing enterprise bargaining agreements and join the union. The issue hit breaking point last week when police were called to the shopping centre, which is undergoing a $450 million redevelopment, after about 200 members of the CFMEU launched an impromptu rally where they howled “go home scabs’’ at independent shopfitters.

My constituents say that shopfitters simply cannot afford to accommodate the unreasonable day-to-day demands of the union and unsustainable wage expectations. Time is critical on building sites; the contractor typically faces a hard deadline and must pay liquidated damages if they are late to complete the job. The unions exploited this fact in their industrial action, knowing that each day a site is shut down, the pressure is building on the contractor to cave in.

Unions also shut down sites for other reasons—for example, to divert workers to participate in marches, pickets and rallies. On 16 August 2013, five sites in Brisbane were shut down and up to 500 workers from these sites participated in a march through the Brisbane CBD. The trigger for this was that the Federal Court was about to hand down a decision concerning the conduct of the CFMEU official Bob Carnegie; despite it being a favourable decision for Bob Carnegie, they still went ahead with the strike.

It is also routine to shut down a site with a view to getting an outcome unrelated to the site. It can often be linked to negotiations concerning an EBA on another site or in other parts of the country. When a contractor had not signed an EBA with the CFMEU in Queensland, the CFMEU enforced a site shutdown, purportedly on safety grounds, at a site in Canberra.

The coalition ABCC working group heard troubling evidence about stop-work action taken at times of maximum economic and operational risks, such as during the middle of a concrete pour. A concrete pour on a floor had been half completed when the union called a stoppage. Workers left the site and the pour was interrupted before it was completed. This meant what had been done was wasted. On returning to work, the half-finished concrete pour had to be jackhammered out. They then repoured the concrete and, again, halfway through the pour a strike was called. This farcical effort cost the contractor $250,000 and several lost weeks.

A recent trend has been the practice of community pickets as a technique for unions to disclaim responsibility. The union claims that the pickets are made up of members of the community not affiliated with the union. This makes it difficult to impose fines on the union.

There is troubling evidence of increasing corruption and criminality in the construction industry. We learned through the ABCC working group that it is not uncommon for union officials to openly ask contractors and subcontractors for money. This can be disguised in many ways, including paying for goods and services supplied by the union at a very substantial overvalue, sponsorship of union picnic days, buying advertising space in union magazines and so on. In some cases, we were told, it is as brazen as a union official asking an employer for cash—'$10,000 in a brown paper bag to keep the peace'.

We heard repeated anecdotes that subcontractors will not be retained by head contractors unless they are on a CFMEU approved list. Head contractors told the working group that CFMEU approved subcontractors are usually considerably more expensive than others. Only the naive would not see the potential for money to be paid by a subcontractor to the union in such situations.

Contractors and subcontractors regularly find themselves in the position that they must agree to unsavoury demands from building unions or fail to win or hold business. This may require them to break the law; very frequently it requires them to violate good commercial and procurement practice. Such an environment corrodes respect for and compliance with the law. The Courier Mail reported that 'Master builders construction policy director told a three-hour parliamentary committee hearing into the changes yesterday that he estimated union misuse of the right of entry provisions was costing the industry millions of dollars.'

It is no secret that the unions have run amok all over the building and construction industry. It is time that the coalition government reversed Labor's weakening of the watchdog on the unions and gave power back to the industry to fairly and economically conduct its business.

I continue to hear from my constituents, small business owners, private contractors and sole traders that the unions are no longer standing up for the little guy and are instead exploiting the major companies and driving out the small independent competition. It is the coalition who is standing up for workers and small businesses. I commend this bill to the House.