In its latest Report of the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, released in 2009, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has called on the federal government to suspend the operations of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) and comply with ILO recommendations.
The ILO is a United Nations agency. It brings together governments, employers and workers of its member states to promote decent work internationally. It is also responsible for the drafting and overseeing of international labour standards.
The ILO seeks to ensure that labour standards are respected in practice as well as principle.
In November 2005 the ILO's Freedom of Association Committee criticised the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act — the legislation that set up the ABCC — for breaching six sections of the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention.
The ABCC was set up by the Howard coalition government in October 2005 to police and destroy the militant construction unions. The ABCC has made numerous attempts to prosecute construction industry unionists.
Most of these cases have been against unions and union officials over alleged breaches of the 1996 Workplace Relations Act and the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act.
Under the ABCC's extraordinary powers there is no right to silence. Workers can face a six month jail sentence for not attending compulsory hearings. Workers brought before the ABCC are not allowed to tell anybody about the process.
PM Kevin Rudd's government is still funding the ABCC to the tune of $32 million a year. Murray Wilcox, a former federal court chief justice, was appointed to review the powers of the ABCC. He has also been asked to report on the integration of the ABCC into Labor's proposed industrial relations umbrella, Fair Work Australia, by February 2010.
Even though Wilcox said in an October 3 discussion paper that the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act was "discriminatory" against building workers, he has so far not called for its abolition. The Wilcox review is expected to release its findings in late March.
In its 2009 report, the ILO urges the Rudd government to say what measures it will take to bring Australian building industry workers' rights in line with ILO standards.
The ILO also requested the government instruct the ABCC to stop handing out penalties or suspend legal actions while it is under review.
In a March 18 statement Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union national secretary Dave Noonan said that the Rudd government should be abolish the ABCC immediately.
"Under John Howard, Australia treated this respected international body with contempt...The Prime Minister has pledged to align Australia with ILO conventions, now he must live up to these promises," Noonan said.
The ILO Committee of Experts report also says the decline of trade union membership in the building industry could be related to the restrictions on collective bargaining in Australia's building industry laws.
The ILO report also notes that the federal ALP industrial relations laws, which according to the Australian Council of Trade Unions are supposedly turning the tide in favor of workers, retain key features of the notoriously anti–worker Work Choices legislation. These include restrictions on the right to take industrial action and severe restrictions of the rights of unions to organise and enter work sites.
The report also highlighted that under the greenfield agreement provisions in Labor's industrial relations laws, employers can select which union will cover the site. This is inconsistent with ILO freedom of association standards.
[For information on the campaign to get rid of the ABCC visit <http://www.rightsonsite.org.au>.]