Royal Commission targets unions and penalty rates

February 14, 2014
Abbott isn't going to help workers, but unionisation can.

The Tony Abbott government has announced another Royal Commission into corruption in building industry unions.

But Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Dave Oliver said the terms of reference for this Royal Commission “are narrowly directed at unions and will not adequately deal with corruption or unlawful behaviour by businesses or employers”.

The last such Royal Commission was only 10 years ago and resulted in no prosecutions despite costing $66 million. Even so, it was used as a pretext to set up the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) which enforced its extraordinary and intimidatory powers against unions and workers in the building industry.

The ABCC is now called the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate, and has been dusted off to again be used to crack down on building unions. The government has even reinstated the anti-union ideologues who were its former directors.

The building unions deserve to be proud. In an industry that is inherently dangerous, the Australian building industry leads the world in safety. There are still too many injuries and deaths, but incredible progress has been made. The unions deserve more than just a share of the credit for that; it's their achievement, not anyone else's.

On non-union building sites, particularly small suburban jobs, safety is still frequently lax and wages are often low. Fly-by-night contractors are a dime a dozen in the industry, and workers finding their boss have taken off with their wages and entitlements is hardly unusual.

So when building unions start to win gains like the 36 hour week on bigger, unionised sites, it is a good example of what workers can achieve — an example that deserves to be followed in all industries.

Although the building unions are a key target for this government, they are only the tip of the iceberg.

There are signs the government is preparing to declare war on penalty rates. In a speech to the Sydney Institute in January, employment minister Eric Abetz said: “We risk seeing something akin to the wages explosion of the pre-accord era when unsustainable wage growth simply pushed thousands of Australians out of work”.

The Fair Work Commission is currently reviewing award conditions and wages.

The Australian Hotels Association called on the commission to “limit the number of public holidays in which penalty rates should be applied to 11 nationally.”

In their submission, the Australian government wrote: “The softening economic environment and labour market should be carefully considered by the Commission during the Review. In particular, the Commission should consider the impact of employment costs on employers’ decision to hire workers over the next four years.

“The Commission is also responsible for determining whether the additional remuneration and the hours and/or days in which it is provided in modern awards are appropriate in a particular industry.”

Abbott blamed fruit processor SPC’s financial troubles on the conditions that union members had won on that site — like their wet allowance, a small extra hourly payment for the discomfort of working in wet clothes. It didn't matter that local Liberal MP Sharman Stone and SPC management denied the accusations forcefully.

The public relations war will try to paint unions as unsupportable, overprivileged, and of course corrupt. Priming journalists with leaks and whistleblowers — and in the “respectable” ABC and Fairfax outlets — is a smart strategy to put the unions on the back foot.

A “whistleblower” in the NSW Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union made some allegations. That was a finding of a recent major “investigation” by Fairfax media and the ABC.

An unproven allegation by someone calling themselves a “whistleblower” could easily come to nothing at all in court. But it's the sensational headlines about the allegations that will be remembered.

Unions should not take this public relations war lightly. It seeks to undermine solidarity, which is exactly what unions thrive on. Those unions whose members' public reputation makes them more or less untarnishable, such as paramedics and nurses, should help to call the smear campaign for what it is. Because it's all workers' conditions that are under threat when the government starts to target basic conditions like penalty rates.

But more than anything, unions will succeed when they stand up for workers and win improvements. That's why, despite all the mudslinging, despite the occasional case of actual corruption, building union members are fiercely loyal to their unions.

If the unions react defensively, they may be drawn into a losing PR war, on terms of the enemy’s choosing. But if they want to go on the front foot, there are millions of employees suffering routine bullying, precarious casual work, low wages, and unsafe jobs. Abbott isn't going to help them, but unionisation can.

If unions are up to that challenge, they will find they have a suit of teflon armour that all the mud of Abbott and the anti-union media will just slide off.

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