The Guardian 24 August, 2005

More draconian laws aimed at unions

Legislation being pushed by the Howard government in Parliament last week, and based on the discredited $66 million Cole Royal Commission, will leave workers exposed to fines and even jailing over industrial and political protests.

The Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill:

  • makes almost all industrial action illegal, including safety and political campaigns, including for instance Green Bans;

  • imposes huge fines on individual workers ($22,000) and unions ($110,000), including unlimited compensation for damages to those affected, for any illegal industrial action;

  • gives government officials the power to interrogate workers about industrial meetings;

  • suspends workers’ right to silence, meaning they can be jailed if they refuse to answer questions.

    It is retrospective to March 9, 2005.

    Trade union involvement in campaigns to save heritage icons such as the Rocks and Centennial Park from development could be a thing of the past under the harsh anti-worker bills for the building industry that were before the Senate last week.

    Union legal advisers fear that under the new regime actions to support the community against developments will just be too risky to undertake.

    CFMEU Construction Division Secretary John Sutton said the laws are the most extreme anti-worker laws ever considered by an Australian parliament.

    "These laws represent a significant reduction in the rights of Australian workers", Mr Sutton warned. "And the government has already signalled that it intends applying these laws beyond the building industry."

    Their aim is to kneecap building and construction unions in the face of employer onslaughts and in relation to any political or community campaigns.

    At the same time the courts have thrown out yet another vexatious prosecution brought by the Howard government’s Building Industry Taskforce. The Taskforce failed in a bid to revoke the right of entry permit of CFMEU organiser Tom Mitchell, over a visit to a Harbord building site in June 2004, in Sydney’s north.

    CFMEU NSW Construction Division Secretary Andrew Ferguson says it was the latest in a series of unfounded claims aimed at "drowning the union in paperwork and preventing the full investigation of safety breaches on a building site".

    "Tom Mitchell was going about his duty to the workers, he was investigating serious safety concerns, and he was meeting with workers to inform them of the risks", Mr Ferguson said.

    "The Taskforce’s claims were unfounded, they lacked merit and they have wasted tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money as part of the government’s extreme ideological agenda to attack the work of trade unions in defending the rights and safety of Australian workers."

    In his findings Deputy Registrar McCarroll refused the Taskforce’s request to revoke Tom Mitchell’s right of entry and said legitimate safety concerns were being investigated.

    Health and safety next target

    Meanwhile, the right of 250,000 employees working in federal government departments to help from unions on health and safety issues will be watered down by new Howard government workplace changes introduced to Parliament last week.

    The Amendments to the Occu­pational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Bill has previously been rejected by the Senate three times but now the Howard government has full control of Parliament it is set to be passed in the current session.

    "The government’s changes to health and safety laws will allow employers to control the election of workplace health and safety representatives and make it harder for employees to be represented by unions in health and safety issues for their workplace", ACTU President Sharan Burrow said.

    Research shows workplaces where unions are active are safer workplaces. Surveys have shown that unionised workplaces are three times as likely to have a health and safety committee, and twice as likely to have undertaken a health and safety audit in the last 12 months.

    Making it harder for Common­wealth employees to get union assistance on OHS issues could lead to lower health and safety standards for federal police, people working in the defence forces, scientists, researchers, technicians, employment advisers and other staff in Government departments and agencies.

    "The motivation for these changes is clearly ideological", said Ms Burrow. "There is no need to change the system. By any practical measure the current Commonwealth health and safety system has been effective in protecting employees and inexpensive compared to similar compensation schemes."

    The current Commonwealth OHS law has delivered the best safety record in Australia with almost 30 percent fewer injuries that result in a week or more compensation, than NSW and 24 percent less than Queensland. (Source Workplace Relations and Management Consultants (WRMC) August 2002 — figures per 1000 employees).

    In addition, workers’ compensation premiums for the Common­wealth are much lower than those paid by the States — NSW premiums are three times the cost of the Commonwealth and in WA, Victoria, and SA they are more than twice the cost. (WRMC Nov 2004).

    The proposed changes appear to violate Australia’s ILO obligations, including the Occupational Health and Safety Convention 1981 and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention 1949.

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