Bill criminalises defence of safety

June 21, 2009

"Some may be disappointed in some parts of this bill", deputy prime minister and workplace relations minister Julia Gillard told parliament on June 17.

She was introducing legislation to amend the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act (BCIIA) and replace the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) with a Building Industry Inspectorate. The new legislation renames the BCII Act the Fair Work (Building Industry) Act 2009.

"I am also disappointed", she continued, "disappointed that there are still pockets of the industry where people think they are above the law, where people engage in intimidation and violence."

The previous Howard Coalition government set up the ABCC in 2005, supposedly to fight "lawlessness" in the construction industry. It receives $32 million a year. From its inception, the real agenda was to protect business profits. To do so, it had to break the strength of the construction unions through criminalising basic trade union activity.

The amendments retain the coercive powers of the ABCC, including six-month jail sentences for non-cooperation with the commission's investigations. Under the new bill, fines may also be imposed instead of — or in addition to — the mandatory jail sentence.

The Building Industry Inspectorate will replace the ABCC on February 1, 2010.

Gillard called for a "strong cop on the beat" and warned that, under the Rudd Labor government, lawbreakers "will feel the full force of the law".

She recognised there are problems in the building industry and there "is a clear and immediate need to drive cultural change". Unfortunately, she wasn't referring to 25-year-old Tom Takurau's tragic and avoidable death, when he was crushed by an eight-tonne beam at Brisbane's Eastern Busway site in December 2008.

Gillard's bill gives no clues on how to reduce the unacceptably high level of workplace injuries and fatalities in the industry. In Queensland, 18 workers died on construction sites in the past 18 months.

In fact, Gillard was referring to industrial action taken by building workers and unions. This was the justification for retaining a "strong cop".

Labor voters expected that, once in power, the Rudd government would "rip up" Howard's Work Choices legislation — as it promised to — and abolish the ABCC. Rudd and Gillard have reneged on both promises. Their new IR law, the Fair Work Act, amount to no more than window dressing.

Perhaps the hasty introduction of the new bill is to avoid a showdown at the ALP national conference in July. There, a motion calling for the complete abolition of the ABCC could get voted up.

The increased tension about the ABCC within ALP ranks is heightened by workers and unionists being prepared to engage in political and industrial campaigns to get rid of the much-hated watchdog.

Victorian Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union official Noel Washington had charges for non-cooperation with the ABCC dropped last year, after a successful union campaign. A new national campaign has kicked off in support of Ark Tribe, a South Australian construction worker awaiting trial after refusing to be interrogated by the ABCC.

The overwhelming majority of ABCC cases and prosecutions have been against trade unionists, often in relation to action taken around occupational health and safety issues, such as is the case with Tribe.

On April 28, the international day of workplace deaths, more than 15,000 building and construction workers mobilised nationally against the ABCC and BCIIA laws, which International Labour Organisation said, are in breach of international labour conventions.

Gillard's new legislation was informed by recommendations from the Wilcox report. Retired judge Murray Wilcox was paid $550 an hour of taxpayers' money to conduct a review into the ABCC.

He acknowledged that building industry workers are subject to discriminatory laws "designed to extract from them information for use in penalty proceedings against their workmates and/or union" However, he strongly recommended keeping coercive interrogation powers because of the "industrial unlawfulness in the building and construction industry, especially in Victoria and Western Australia".

Building unions in Victoria and WA could possibly see a further increase of harassment and intimidation from February 2010 by the "new ABCC", as Gillard will direct ABCC Commissioner Lloyd to focus the new Building Inspectorate's resources on areas that have a "demonstrated culture of unlawful behaviour".

Wilcox and Gillard cite improved industrial harmony as proof the ABCC is needed to rein in supposed union thugs. The "harmony" actually means poor health and safety conditions on building sites, making the construction sector the most dangerous industry in Australia.

There is no place for a body — ABCC or Building Inspectorate — that criminalises union activity and denies basic civil liberties. It has to be opposed in the interests of all workers.

A national cross-union campaign calling for the complete non-cooperation with the ABCC or the Building Inspectorate — including the non-payment of fines — must repeal the legislation. Until then, workers' lives will continue to be sacrificed for bosses' profits.

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