The anti-union Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) is set to return. A series of deals with the crossbench senators of the Nick Xenophon team and Derryn Hinch, along with the support of One Nation, were enough for the Coalition to pass the legislation.
The bill was one of the triggers for Malcolm Turnbull’s double dissolution federal election, after the Coalition failed to get it through the Senate in 2014.
The ABCC is aimed at breaking the power of the construction (and associated) unions.
Building workers at Lend Lease, one of Australia’s biggest building companies, recently won a 20 per cent pay rise over four years in most states, after only limited industrial action in Queensland. Hutchinson, Watpac, Multiplex and Probuild had already signed the agreement. The deal buys into some of the bosses’ “productivity” concerns, with a single national EBA at Lend Lease replaced by state deals, with WA workers getting only 3.125 per year reflecting that the industry is “struggling” in that state.
But it is a big win when the wages of Australian workers are growing at their slowest rate on record—1.9 per cent a year.
Turnbull used the pay deal as evidence that the ABCC was needed to curb the CFMEU.
The ABCC has extreme powers, including the threat of six months in jail for workers who refuse to answer questions, on topics such as who attends union meetings or argues for strike action.
Turnbull and the construction bosses complain about “illegal behaviour” on building sites. What they mean is the construction unions’ militancy and willingness to take industrial action in defence of members’ safety and working conditions.
Australia has some of the harshest restrictions on the right to strike in the world. The law makes organising effective industrial action almost impossible, confining it to short approved bargaining periods for enterprise agreements once every three or four years.
Approval requires drawn out ballots and notification to the employer of any action.
This means that the continual action needed on building sites to force bosses to fix safety hazards runs up against the law.
The ABCC polices industrial law, with the intention of preventing strikes and weakening union organisation. ABCC inspectors will begin crawling over building sites, attempting to dig out evidence to threaten individuals and prosecute the CFMEU, construction unions over infringements.
It will be able to impose fines of up to $34,000 on individual workers who take part in “unlawful” industrial action.
The government was forced to make some concessions to win the crossbenchers’ support. Workers interrogated by the ABCC will no longer be banned from telling anyone else they have been called in for questioning.
There are also some new minor “accountability” mechanisms, including judicial review of ABCC decisions and a requirement to gain permission from the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to use Commission’s coercive powers.
The most significant change is that the government has backed down on plans to make its new Building Code apply immediately to all agreements signed since 2014.
Now existing EBAs can remain unchanged for two years, until November 2018, but all new agreements must comply.
Any building companies tendering for government contracts must comply with the government’s Building Code.
The code bans a whole series of items from EBAs, and weakens union organisation by stopping the hiring of full-time site delegates, restricting union right of entry, and even banning union stickers or flags at work, including on hardhats.
The ABCC was first set up under the Howard government in 2004 and lasted until its replacement with a slimmed down version with Labor’s Fair Work Building and Construction body in 2012.
Its establishment led to increased deaths on construction sites, from 19 in the year it was introduced to 37 in the year Howard left office.
Weakening the unions means weakening safety. Without union membership in the industry, exploitation is also rife. The Melbourne Age recently reported the story of one Afghani tiler who had not been paid some $20,000 over six years.
The unions’ reliance on lobbying crossbench Senators, instead of an industrial campaign of protests and strikes, failed to stop the ABCC legislation. This was a mistake that can’t be repeated.
The government will be very wary about taking the risk of locking up construction workers for simply insisting on basic rights. Like last time, the ABCC can be beaten through a campaign of defiance—backed by industrial action to defend workers who refuse to co-operate with ABCC inspectors.
Protests and strike action can force the ABCC off building sites and defend our unions.
By Tom Orsag and James Supple