Working Life
Ark victorious

First it’s building workers, then who is next?


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By Dave Oliver

Secretary of the ACTU

Monday, 04 November 2013

THE first two months of the Abbott Government have shown us a lot about its real priorities, rather than the small target it adopted in opposition.

There has been a decision to hand over a major review of the public sector to the Business Council of Australia, an attempt to shut down media scrutiny of asylum seekers, and now an attempt to raise from the grave the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

The original ABCC was set up in 2005 under the Howard Government at the heart of the broader WorkChoices agenda and as an attempt to reduce the ability of workers in the construction sector to be represented by strong unions.

We are hearing the same claims now that we did then. That the construction industry is plagued by “thuggery” and a special body is urgently required to restore order. This body will require a few special privileges, such as being able to interrogate workers in secret hearings without the right to silence.

This is just the beginning

What concerns us most is that this is just the beginning of an agenda by the Liberal Party, in concert with big business, to smear unions and union members and take them out of the equation because unions represent the only real organised challenge in society to their bankrupt ideology of “let ‘em rip” free markets.

Under WorkChoices, the Liberal-big business coalition struck at the very heart of working conditions, and it was only unions that stood in their way and saw off those unfair laws.

They have learnt from that, and their strategy this time around is to first weaken unions, and then go after wages and conditions. And they will start with the building unions who have been at the forefront of many of the improvements to working conditions that we now take for granted.

The old ABCC used these coercive powers on at least 200 people, almost all construction workers. They were taken off sites and interviewed, with no right to silence and no choice of lawyer. For months the threat of a repeat interview was held over them. They were subject to the stress of being unable to tell even their family about what had happened, at risk of jail.

Eventually the case of Ark Tribe (pictured above), a worker who defied the ABCC and whose case was thrown out of court, forced it to scale back its abuse of workers’ rights.

All Australians should be concerned about the existence of a body that takes basic rights from workers from one specific industry, particularly on the flimsy grounds put forward by ABCC supporters. Construction workers should be treated the same as all other workers, not subject to the stress of arbitrary interrogations.

The record shows that the first ABCC was a $135 million dud. Despite its coercive powers it failed to uncover any of the major illegalities its supporters claimed existed in construction. What taxpayers got for their money was a bureaucracy that targeted construction workers, and failed to deliver any positive outcomes.

WATCH: the proud history of the CFMEU

The most serious indictment of the ABCC is the fact during the ABCC’s reign safety records on Australian construction sites worsened. The ABCC did nothing to tackle employers on safety issues and unions were forced to concentrate their resources on dealing with ABCC harassment rather than protecting their members.

As well as failing to improve safety the ABCC conspicuously failed to investigate or prosecute employers underpaying workers. It did nothing to investigate the use of ‘sham contracting’ in the construction industry that costs billions each year in tax revenue. It will not look at bribery allegations recently made against construction giant Leightons.

Trying to recreate a flawed investigative body shows that the Abbott Government and its backers are putting ideology ahead of sensible policy.

To try and boost their case, the most vocal supporters of the return of the ABCC have deliberately blurred the lines between criminal offences and breaches of industrial law. They use vague and emotive allegations of “blackmail” or “intimidation” on building sites to justify a huge investment and coercive powers that are solely used against unions.

Let’s be clear: the role of the ABCC is only to investigate breaches of industrial law. If there have been breaches of criminal law on building sites – whether by unions, employers or anyone else – they should be investigated by the police and the perpetrators punished.

The new Government has at least let workers know where they are coming from, and that the proposed new ABCC will be as unjust and discriminatory as the old one. They’ve floated rumours that AFP officers will be seconded to the ABCC, they’ve told us that anti-union figures John Lloyd and Nigel Hadgkiss will run the new body. These characters have a history of ideological opposition to workers’ rights, and re-appointing them is like putting Dracula in charge of the bloodbank.

They are also talking about replicating Victoria’s flawed construction industry code on a national level. This code threatens employers who sign perfectly legal union agreements with the loss of government contracts if the agreements are deemed to be too union friendly. For example, companies that agree with unions to employ a certain number of apprentices on major projects may miss out, even if they offer the most competitive bid.

How this helps the taxpayers who pay for major projects, or fits in with this government’s intention of reducing red tape for business, I have no idea.

A dangerous industry needs strong unions

What we will get from the new ABCC is a body designed to harass and intimidate unions as they go about their business of representing workers, protecting their pay and conditions and ensuring they get home to their families each night.

We will be working with the opposition parties in the current and post-July, 2014 Senators to stop the reintroduction of the ABCC.

It will be a test of the new Senate and the real attitudes of the Palmer United Party and others who claim to be standing up for ordinary Australians.

The building and construction industry is a dangerous workplace. I know – I’ve worked in it and I’ve seen mates seriously injured or killed. That’s why we need strong, effective unions to enforce safety standards and defend the rights of workers. No union member or official should ever need to apologise for fighting for the right of building workers to come home in one piece.

Last week the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program showed what happens to a society when you don’t have effective unions. It revealed that tertiary-educated people working as bar staff in the United States earn poverty wages of  just US$2.13 an hour. They don’t have paid holidays or paid sick leave.

Every Australian watching that program would have been relieved that’s not the situation here, and said, “thank God for unions”.

That is why the union movement is united in its opposition to the ABCC.

We are aware that the government feels it can get away with attacks on construction workers, but we know that if we do not act to stop the ABCC and its attack on workers’ rights, then there is no telling which industry and which workers will be next.

This article was first published by New Matilda on 31 October 2013.

Working Life is a forum to share ideas and opinions about work and life, both light-hearted and serious. The opinions presented on Working Life are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent policies or views of the ACTU.


Creative Commons License
We believe in the free flow of information, and content on Working Life is available to be republished online or in print under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


  1. Cassandra
    Monday, 4 November, 2013 at 11:44 am · Reply

    What we are seeing here with the resurrection of the ABCC and other anti union legislation being enacted by the Liberal States is the employers being relieved of the responsibility and cost of fighting their own industrial relations matters and the taxpayer taking on the role of employers prosecutor.

    Can you imagine the outcry in the media if a Labor government donated half a billion dollars to the ACTU to prosecute employers for breaches of their Award and OHS obligations and backed that up with laws compelling employers to open their books to public scrutiny, executive pay and perks to be on a public register and jail terms for any employer or manager who refused to answer questions from the unions lawyers or to ‘dob in other managers?

    In answer to the question “Who is next?” The answer is the rest of the trade union movement, then outspoken individuals (remember the Howard Government ‘blacklisted’ anyone who had dared to write critical ‘letters to the editor’ from ever getting a government job) . In other societies the media would be next for censorship or closing down but here the media is already owned by the same people financing Liberal governments with the exception of OUR ABC and is fully supportive of the attack on welfare , human and union rights currently under way by Liberal governments.

    Hardly surprising then that the commercial media and Liberal politicians are already ramping up the rhetoric against the ABC with groundless allegations of “left wing bias” and demanding a reduction in funding or commercialisation (Ie business control) of the ABC to make it ‘tow the government line’.!

    Close down the unions, stifle opposition, close down or nobble the ABC and you have a people and a country ripe for the plucking. Liberal Nirvana! Workers Hell.

  2. Roger colclough
    Friday, 8 November, 2013 at 10:53 am · Reply

    The fact is that workers voted this party into power largely due to the divisive tactics of the factions in caucus.
    The election of Shorten over the wishes of ordinary members shows that the factions are alive and well.
    The party does not realise that electing the man who was the powerbroker in the most divisive period in the it’s history will turn the faithful away in droves.
    It’s about time that caucus realised that neither Abbott nor Murdoch won the election, Labor threw in thew towel without regard to the working people of Australia.

  3. Roger colclough
    Friday, 8 November, 2013 at 10:55 am · Reply

    Further my advice will be for a true workers party that we all vote Green, take over the party and form a party which holds true to labor’s lost ethics

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