The ABCC: Trigger for a gun pointed at workers' heads

April 1, 2016

In all the media hype about Malcolm Turnbull's recalling of parliament in April and talk of a double dissolution election, it is easy to lose sight of the “trigger” — the Australian Building and Construction Commission bill (ABCC bill).

I recently heard an ABC Radio National commentator talking about the use of the ABCC bill as the trigger. She said words to the effect that most people would be in favour of cleaning up construction unions as only 11% of workers are in unions now. So it was considered to be a winner for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

As a trade unionist my whole working life, currently a proud Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) member and a health and safety teacher, I can't believe that it would be a winner if people got to hear the truth.

In all the vilification of the CFMEU — the characterisation of us as thugs, standover merchants and bandit bikies — the real nature of what we do and who we are has been lost.

Has it been forgotten that we are the people who build your houses, your public hospitals, schools, roads, bridges and high rise buildings? In fact the whole “built environment” was created by generations of construction workers who slogged their guts out in dangerous, exhausting conditions where the fatality rate is still the second highest in the country, after the agricultural sector.

Talk to any construction worker and they will tell you that without the union there would be far more construction deaths and injuries. Why? Because this industry makes multi-billion dollar profits and if bosses had their way construction sites would work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week without penalty rates. Few workers in the commercial sector currently work less than 56 hour weeks, and maintaining safety is a daily struggle.

Many of the workers that I teach are plagued with long-term injuries. Most have back or other musculoskeletal injuries; nearly all have hearing impairment. They worry about the asbestos or silica dust they have been exposed to and they know that getting to 67 years old on the tools is going to be a big struggle. They desperately try to make as much money as they can in this itinerant and unstable industry, sometimes placing unsustainable pressure on their family life, hoping to achieve security before being forced into early retirement.

That is why they are so committed to their unions. Construction unions have become the “thin red line” if you like, between decent pay and conditions and abject slavery. Every time the union is forced to take a back seat, terrible things start to happen.

For example in the housing industry in Victoria, where the union has little coverage, the fatality rate is two-thirds higher than in the more unionised commercial area. When the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) was last an independent commission, from 2005 to 2012, and the unions were harassed and fined to keep them off site, the fatalities and injuries grew. Indeed, according to the Safe Work Australia report of June 2015 there were 53 deaths in 2007, but it had dropped to 21 deaths in 2013.

Another example is the proliferation of sham contracting and under-award payments in the plastering sector of the industry, where shameless contractors employ thousands of predominately Chinese workers at slave rates, causing immense anger. Builders can call in the Fair Work Building Commission inspectors if the union tries to intervene.

The list of horrors is endless, not least the example of Lis-Con Concrete Constructions, a company at the centre of the Trade Union Royal Commission. It went bankrupt in early March owing hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Tax Office and in workers' compensation and superannuation premiums. This was the company that said the CFMEU was trying to kick it out of Queensland and where two superannuation fund employees were fined for leaking information to the union about non-payment of superannuation. Lis-Con effectively stole that money from workers and the Australian people.

As Dave Noonan, national construction secretary of the CFMEU said in The Age on February 5: “The practice of declaring bankruptcy, then opening the following day under another name only to repeat the same offences, cost workers up to $137 million in lost wages and entitlements in 2013-2014. Unpaid taxes for construction industry companies for the same period were up to $487 million.” We should not forget the construction companies who pay almost no tax through “acceptable” legal mechanisms.

The ABCC bill will outlaw limits to employing casual workers, provisions for more apprentices and measures to stop sham contracting. It will lower workers' pay and conditions and reduce their ability to have a say about safety. It will further reduce the right of access to workplaces for unions and increase the opportunities for exploitation by greedy developers.

That's why the Turnball government wants it and believes it is onto a “winner” against working people: Destroy our strongest unions and it is open slather on the rest of us. That is why I am implacably opposed to it.

[Sue Bull is the Socialist Alliance candidate for the seat of Corio. Sue has been a trade unionist throughout her working life and is currently a proud CFMEU member and health and safety teacher.]

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