Defend Ark Tribe! Defend building workers!

October 25, 2009

The Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2009 is scheduled for Senate debate on October 26. The bill would change the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act 2005 (BCII Act). This would affect the building and construction industry's watchdog, the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

On October 30, national protest rallies will take place to coincide with Ark Tribe's court appearance in Adelaide.

Tribe, a South Australian building worker and Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) member, was charged with not attending an ABCC interrogation in relation to an industrial matter at his worksite.

If found guilty, Tribe faces a jail sentence of up to six months.

Under the ABCC's coercive powers, workers have no right to silence; they can be fined thousands of dollars for taking industrial action or even thrown in jail for not attending the commission's compulsory and secret meetings.

Tribe, a rigger, is the second CFMEU member facing trial for non-cooperation. In November 2008, the ABCC dropped a similar case against CFMEU Victorian branch assistant secretary Noel Washington after a successful union campaign.

Blue-collar unions in particular have pushed for the total abolition of the ABCC since the election of the Labor government in 2007. The highly politicised commission was created in 2005, intent on destroying the industrial muscle of the building industry unions in order to drive down wages and conditions in the industry.

The ABCC has specifically targeted the militant Victorian and Western Australian building workers, evident in the high number of cases brought against them. So far, the ABCC has not prosecuted a single employer for ripping off workers or any other breaches of the BCII Act.

The International Labour Organisation has condemned the ABCC and the BCII Act for breaching international labour standards. In March, the ILO called on the federal government to suspend all ABCC operations.

This has not deterred workplace relations minister Julia Gillard and building industry bosses from launching a frenzied public relations campaign, arguing for keeping the "tough cop on the beat" to deal with alleged endemic violence and bullying on building sites.

CFMEU national secretary Dave Noonan told Green Left Weekly the amendment bill wouldn't actually repeal the current legislation, only slightly change it. "The ABCC will be abolished in name but the coercive powers remain", he said.

The bill 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. The bill, as recommended by Wilcox, proposes replacing the ABCC with a Building Industry Inspectorate, with the power to prosecute and compulsorily obtain information and documents from relevant parties.

The bill proposes that most of the ABCC's draconian powers are kept, and recommended fines instead of — or as well as — mandatory jail sentences for non-cooperation.

The fines are to be brought in line with the much lower penalties that can be imposed under the Fair Work Act. Workers would also have the right to choose their own lawyer.

Noonan said this wasn't good enough. "The fundamental issue here is the unwarranted retention of the [ABCC's] coercive powers", he said. "The ALP wants to keep these powers so as not to be seen as soft on militant unionism. It is simply to placate big business."

Building unions in Victoria and WA could face even more harassment and intimidation from February 2010 by the "new ABCC".

In her speech for the bill's second reading, Gillard said ABCC Commissioner John Lloyd would be directed to focus the new Building Inspectorate's resources on areas that have a "demonstrated culture of unlawful behaviour".

The Master Builders Association also argues for the need to retain strong laws because, as it said on September 11, "thuggery and violence can never and must never be acceptable".

These false arguments are designed to cloud public perception about the need for the ABCC.

Violence and criminal behaviour are dealt with by the crime authority and the police, not by a government body charged with regulating industrial behaviour.

The ABCC and the draconian laws that underpin it have criminalised actions over health and safety issues, which are putting workers' lives at risk.

The industrial matter about which Tribe refused to answer ABCC questions, and which led to him now facing jail, was a meeting about a workplace safety issue.

"We are calling on workers to support Ark Tribe and protest [against] the ABCC", Noonan said. "There should be no space for terrible laws like these in a democracy."

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