The Guardian 9 March, 2005

The innocent shall be guilty

The Howard government's latest assault on working families proposes $22,000 fines on individual workers even when they act within existing laws. Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews, is pushing anti-building worker legislation, including massive fines, prison terms and the taking away of the right of workers to remain silent. Furthermore, the Government will be able to back-date the fines and jail sentences to an unspecified time.

The laws, in the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill, are specific to the building and construction industry.

They will be reinforced by turning Nigel Hadgkiss' Building Industry Taskforce into a permanent Australian Building and Construction Commission with sweeping, coercive powers.

Key features of the Bill to be introduced to parliament this week include:

  • making it illegal to backdate wage settlements, even if the parties want to

  • making it illegal to campaign for people doing the same work to receive the same pay and conditions

  • making lawful strike action contingent on time-consuming secret ballots

  • declaring legal strikes illegal once they go beyond 14 days

  • introducing fines of up to $22,000 for individuals involved in "illegal" industrial action

  • making unions liable to fines of up to $120,000 for breaches

  • giving Hadgkiss' Commission the right to investigate and initiate potentially crippling actions on behalf of "third parties"

  • removing the right to silence from people interviewed by the Commission, and forcing them to produce documents, on pain of jail.

    Thousands of building industry agreements are due to expire in October and workers have already started talks with employers on a new round of deals.

    Already, the Master Builders Federation has announced its intention to roll back the 36-hour week.

    The Howard government will not gain control of the Senate until July and it is unlikely far-reaching legislation could be rammed through until August, at the earliest.

    But Andrews' office has been writing to building industry bosses threatening the loss of government contracts if they agree to claims for improved wages or conditions.

    Now he has moved to further strengthen their resolve by announcing that penalties and sanctions in this latest proposed legislation will be applied retrospectively.

    Andrews has refused to say when they will be back-dated to.

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