Howard: Constructing fear in the construction industry


Constructing Fear

Directed by Joe Loh


Film director Joe Loh's new documentary, Constructing Fear, was launched in Canberra on August 14. The 37-minute documentary exposes the operations of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) in spreading fear among construction workers. The ABCC is fining them tens of thousands of dollars, hauling them into secret court hearings to grill them about who was involved in industrial action, thwarting industrial action and undermining working conditions and safety on building sites. One building worker is killed each week, on average.

Building workers questioned by the ABCC do not have a right to silence, on pain of six months jail, the only other category of citizen so deprived being terrorism suspects. Following the Cole Royal Commission into the Building and Construction industry, the Howard government passed the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act, which set up the ABCC in 2005. This draconian law operates in addition to Work Choices, affecting all workers in the construction industry.

The documentary interviews the ABCC's CEO John Lloyd, who candidly explains its sweeping powers. The ABCC has an annual budget of $150 million and a staff of 120 inspectors to enforce this bosses' law on building sites.

Brodene Wardley, a safety delegate and crane driver at Roche Mining near Ballarat, relates how she called a site meeting after a bus carrying construction workers was nearly hit by a train on a level crossing. A short strike resulted in caution signs being installed. The ABCC ordered her to appear at one of its secret court hearings, where she was grilled about the strike. Wardley is shown bravely relating her experience to the November 30 Your Rights at Work rally in Melbourne.

Charlie Corbett, from the Latrobe Valley, explains that when a young apprentice was sacked on a community development project, he initiated a strike that successfully reinstated the apprentice. For this he has writs against him issued by the ABCC for fines of $44,000.

The most notorious action of the ABCC to date is its move against 107 West Australian construction workers, who are being threatened with fines up to $28,600 each for striking to reinstate sacked delegate Peter Ballard and to restore safety standards, on the Perth-to-Mandurah railway construction project in early 2006. Charlie Isaacs, one of the 107, relates how despite the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) recommending not striking due to the anti-union laws, the workers decided to strike anyway. The ABCC then served each of the 107 workers with the fines at their homes.

John Pes emotionally describes how his two young daughters gave him their few dollars towards him not having to go to jail. Those interviewed say that they simply don't have the money. Their court case resumes on October 29.

Isaacs sums up the feelings of the workers when he says, "If you can't stand up and say what you feel and believe, then you're a slave. And I ain't no slave."

The film-makers are encouraging groups, unions, churches and anyone else who is interested to organise their own screenings of the film. Visit the website for details. The CFMEU is organising a Sydney screening at 5pm on August 31 in the Guthrie Theatre at the University of Technology, Sydney.