On Monday’s Q&A, ACTU leader Ged Kearney claimed that the Government’s proposed reinstatement of the ABCC was about ‘union breaking’ and ‘taking away the rights of construction workers’ to keep their sites safe.
The idea that the ABCC will risk worker’s lives is a convenient tagline for union officials who are the prime beneficiaries of Fair Work’s limp-wristed construction regulator. But when tested against bare facts, it reveals some hard truths.
Over the last twelve years – five of which were under the Howard Government’s former ABCC – construction deaths have trended downward broadly in line with other industries. The government’s legislation in no way impacts the ability of workers to raise and employer’s who breach workplace health and safety regulations still face steep penalties.
Rather, the ABCC is about stamping out lawlessness in an industry where collusion, intimidation and standover tactics have become par for the course.
Over 100 CFMEU officials – more than 25 per cent of the union’s workforce – are currently facing prosecution charged with over 1,000 industrial breaches. Scores of others wear former convictions as a badge of honour.
Since 2004, the CFMEU has racked up over $8 million worth of fines for breaches of the law.
The typical response to these figures by Bill Shorten and union leaders is to glibly point out that lawbreakers should be prosecuted but we shouldn’t disparage the work of the overwhelmingly honest people that make up the trade union movement.
Let’s get real. Any other organisation with more than a quarter of its employees before the courts for flouting the law would be rightly labelled a criminal gang.
The CFMEU’s rap sheet underscores what countless workers within the construction industry are already keenly aware – standover tactics are part and parcel of the union’s business model.
Everyone wants construction workers to be paid a fair and decent wage and come home safely. But conflating the issue of worker safety with the construction industry’s toxic culture of lawlessness is just cynical moral grandstanding.
The same can be said about the much-trumpeted claim that the ABCC’s powers to compel testimony are an attack on worker’s ‘human rights.’ Specialist construction regulators armed with powers to force witnesses to testify are standard fare in most developed economies.
The reason is that large construction projects are by their very nature prone to price fixing and anticompetitive collusion. Likewise, workers and subcontractors are loath to report misconduct due to well-founded fears of union reprisal. The ACCC, ASIC and the Commissioner of Taxation all have equal if not greater powers, so let’s dispense with the farce that the ABCC is some form of union busting star chamber.
Australia’s building costs are the highest in the world and the construction industry loses six times more days to industrial disputes than the rest of our economy.
The union movement’s opposition to the ABCC is a welcome sign that the Commission might actually bring change to an industry that has long been a handbrake on our whole economy.
John Slater is Executive director of the HR Nicholls Society
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