Bad laws let dodgy employers get away with not paying workers

Issue 

The CFMEU has labelled the $21,225 fine imposed by the Federal Court on May 30 for taking action over hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages as a “disgrace”.

WA CFMEU secretary Mick Buchan said this action characterises the absolute bias of the Fair Work Building Commission (FWBC). “They came after the union for helping workers get the wages that were owed to them for work they had done. We are being punished for doing our job.”

In handing down his decision Justice Siopis implied that the union had just cause. “The reason for the blockade was that the CFMEU had received reports that a number of employees of Concealed Interiors working on the project had been unpaid for six to eight weeks. It is an agreed fact that the CFMEU had reasonable belief that this may be the case … the cause for which the respondents organised and participated in the blockade, may be regarded as just.”

The case relates to an action in October 2013 taken by construction workers on the T1 extension at Perth Airport, being developed by Broad Constructions.

Buchan described it as “one of the most rorted sites ever seen in the Perth construction industry. At least 40 workers had gone weeks, some months without pay. Relationships had broken down, cars were being repossessed and we were hearing stories of workers contemplating suicide.”

The CFMEU took up the fight on behalf of the workers with Broad Constructions and their parent company Leighton Holdings and tried for five weeks to resolve the situation. More than $380,000 in unpaid wages and entitlements was owed. No superannuation payments had been paid into the workers' accounts, even though the employer was taking the money out. Ironically, the project was financed by the Australian Industry Super Fund.

Assurances were given by the Perth Airports Corporation that all wages would be paid and that workers would be immediately given $1000. But no payments or guarantees promised were forthcoming.

In the midst of the dispute, the workers learned that Broad had been awarded another contract to upgrade security at the site. “The feeling was that Broad was being rewarded while the workers were being screwed,” said Buchan. Broad's poor performance has since seen them replaced by another builder.

After picketing the site, the CFMEU managed to get all outstanding money paid to the workers. The FWBC did nothing to address the non-payment of wages, but concentrated on punishing the union.

Buchan said: “This is what happens under the draconian laws of the federal Liberal government. Unscrupulous employers and their schemes to avoid paying decent hardworking workers are placed ahead of working people receiving any fair representation or justice, and it will get worse under stronger laws being proposed with reintroduction of the ABCC by the Turnbull government.

“We don't apologise for helping workers to get paid so they can pay their bills, put food on the table and look after themselves and their family. There is a war against worker's rights and a class divide in this country and cases like this prove it.”

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