ABCC makes gains under Rudd

July 19, 2008

Figures from the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) show that since the election of the Labor government in November, the commission has upped the ante in its witch-hunt of building industry workers.

Statistics obtained by Green Left Weekly indicate that investigations by the commission have risen from 33 in November to 49 in June, with a high of 58 in April. Site visits by the industry watchdog have also gone up, from 15 in November to 109 in June.

The ABCC was set up in 2005 by the then-Coalition government of John Howard, as a result of the Cole Royal Commission into the building industry, which — to the disappointment of big business — found no evidence of corruption or wrong doing by the unions.

Despite the commission's findings, the ABCC was established — although as a supposedly a neutral body — with the brief to "clean up" the building industry. Under the commission's draconian laws, building industry workers are forced to attend interrogation hearings under threat of jail sentences for non-compliance. No other group of workers in Australia is subject to such discriminatory laws.

One of PM Kevin Rudd's election promises was to abolish the ABCC in 2010. However, in a further concession to business, the government is planning to incorporate the task force's powers into "Fair Work Australia", Labor's proposed new workplace "umpire". Federal industrial relations minister Julia Gillard has said that the government favours keeping a "tough cop on the beat" in the building industry.

Figures reported in the July 15 Australian indicate that the ABCC is far from "neutral" with regard to who it targets. Unions featured as subjects in 73% of all investigations, with employees in 11% and head contractors in 7%.

Dave Noonan, national secretary of the construction division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, told Green Left Weekly that the ABCC, with $33 million of taxpayers' money at its disposal, works as a clear ideological body aiming to attack unions. "The ABCC has never investigated or taken action against an employer for underpaying workers, however the commission has investigated employers for entering into union agreements", he said.

A public campaign to dump the ABCC, launched on May 6 by the Building Industry Group unions, has started to worry business.
The Master Builders Association of Victoria, representing thousands of employers in the industry, has been heavily lobbying the ALP government to keep the watchdog, and brags on its "save the ABCC" website that the ABCC has helped reduce industrial disputes to record lows, improved overall productivity, increased real wages for workers and reduced the occurrence of unlawful behaviour.

Noonan told GLW that some of these claims are totally ludicrous. "Real wage gain has only ever come about through the collective organisation of workers via their unions or through market pressures; certainly not through the ABCC or the Master Builders", Noonan said. He also commented that there was no evidence that the ABCC actually produced productivity gains.

"The big end of town and the multinational companies want to keep the ABCC because it helps create profit for them and stops workers from taking action [even for] safety reasons", he said. "Our position is clear. Construction workers should have the same rights as every other worker in Australia."

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