Unions slam building industry secret police at Senate inquiry

February 11, 2012

Industry groups, building industry spokespeople and opposition politicians have made full use of the Senate inquiry into proposed laws to abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

They’ve claimed that the Gillard government’s proposed changes will turn the laws against construction workers into a “toothless tiger”.

The Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee Inquiry has been taking submissions since November. It will finish on February 20 and will report on February 29.

But industry has nothing to complain about. The new bill, which Labor says meets its election promise to abolish the former Howard government’s building industry secret police, retains the coercive powers of the ABCC. Building industry workers will still face penalties of six months jail for refusing to answer questions or produce documentation.

The so-called safeguards included in the new law have been criticised by construction unions. The “safeguards” include the right for a worker under interrogation to have a lawyer present. The bill also includes a three-year sunset clause. Before the three years are up, the government will conduct a review of the building industry.

In their submission to the Senate inquiry, the combined construction unions said it was wrong that the ABCC’s coercive powers would stay under the new law.

They said: “These powers are unprecedented. No other industrial inspectorate in Australia or anywhere else in the world has ever been given such intrusive and far-reaching powers to compel its citizens to attend and face interrogation over what has happened in the workplace ...

“The addition of procedural safeguards will not render these powers acceptable. The history of the use and abuse of these coercive powers by the ABCC makes a compelling case for their repeal.”

Under Labor’s changes, the ABCC will be replaced by a new agency called the Office of the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate. Its functions will “correspond in many respects to the ABC Commissioner’s functions”.

Like the ABCC, the new laws criminalise many industrial actions by building and construction unions.

A similar bill was introduced into the Parliament in June 2009, when Julia Gillard was the workplace relations minister. But it lapsed before the 2010 federal election. In 2009, Gillard told parliament: “The creation of the Building Inspectorate creates certainty for industry participants, and it meets our election commitment to keep a strong 'cop on the beat' for the benefit of the industry and the economy.”

In June 2008, the government appointed Murray Wilcox QC, retired Federal Court judge, to consult and report on the creation of the Fair Work Inspectorate. His report was presented in March 2009. It recommended that the government retain the ABCC’s coercive powers to interrogate workers.

Wilcox said: “It is understandable that workers in the building industry resent being subject to an interrogation process, that does not apply to other workers, designed to extract from them information for use in penalty proceedings against their workmates and/or union ...

“However, [removing the powers] would not be a responsible course. I am satisfied there is still such a level of industrial unlawfulness in the building and construction industry, especially in Victoria and Western Australia, that it would be inadvisable not to empower the [Specialist Division] to undertake compulsory interrogation.”

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