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Thursday, 28 August 2008
Page: 3983


Senator SIEWERT (9:37 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

The Building and Construction Industry (Restoring Workplace Rights) Bill 2008 I introduce today provides for the repeal of the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act (BCII Act) 2005 and the Building and Construction Industry Improvement (Consequential and Transitional) Act 2005.

These laws are some of the most pernicious ever to have passed through this place. They strip away internationally recognised rights of workers in the building and construction industries.

This bill is intended to ensure such laws no longer exist in Australia.

A consequence of the repeal of the BCII Act is the abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner (the ABCC). The ABCC has sweeping powers that have no place in the regulation of workplaces.

It is an affront to democracy to have workplace relations laws that take away the right to silence, deny people their choice of lawyer, provide powers to compel evidence with the possibility of gaol for non-compliance, and impose severe restrictions on the rights of workers to organise and bargain collectively.

The ABCC has coercive powers to compel a person to provide information, produce documents, or attend to answer questions at an examination. Persons face fines of up to $20 000 or a gaol term if they do not comply with a request from the ABCC. Lawyers have a limited role and the Commissioner determines his own practices with a high level of secrecy.

Building and construction workers are being denied basic democratic rights to procedural fairness and natural justice that the rest of us take for granted. These workers - who have not been charged with anything and may only be suspected of knowing about an offence committed by someone else - are being treated with fewer rights than someone who has committed a very serious criminal offence.

It is not appropriate to regulate the relationship between employers and employees in a quasi-criminal way. If there is criminality on a building site it should be dealt with by the criminal law.

A consequence of the operations of the ABCC is that building workers may be too intimidated to speak out about health and safety issues for fear of being investigated. In an industry that has such a high rate of workplace injuries and death, any laws or regulations that provide a disincentive to speak out about safety issues are unacceptable.

The bill repeals both Acts in their entirety. There is nothing to be salvaged from these pieces of legislation.

The International Labour Organisation has repeatedly commented that the BCII Act breaches international labour conventions to which Australia is a signatory. The ILO is a tri-partite body and it has found these laws breach the right to organise and collective bargain and the right to freedom of association.

Sometimes it seems almost old-fashioned to talk about the human rights of workers in a time when our public narrative is so focused on economic indicators. But human rights do matter. They matter whether it is refugees being sent to detention centres, whether it is so-called anti-terror laws or whether it is our rights at work.

This is the former Government’s Work Choices agenda at its most extreme and no-one that purports to be bringing fairness back to Australian workplaces could support the BCII Act or the ABCC continuing any longer and certainly not until 2010.

The ABCC should be abolished and the building industry regulated just like any other industry—in a fair and just manner that balances the needs of productivity and the economy with the health and safety and democratic rights of workers.


Senator SIEWERT —I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.