The Guardian 12 October, 2005
Building industry laws
"blueprint" for all workers
Powers bestowed on a secret building industry police force have been labelled "sneaky" and "devious" by a Melbourne court. Justice Shane Marshall made the comments about covertly-recorded conversations at the centre of a Building Industry Taskforce prosecution against Multiplex.
Justice Marshall ruled the taskforce’s case that Multiplex had tried to coerce a subcontractor to negotiate an agreement with the Construction Division of the CFMEU was "without foundation".
However he said that secret electronic recordings made by a subbie in the presence of a taskforce investigator and using the officer’s recording device, were legal and admissible as evidence. Justice Marshall conceded that reasonable people might view such conduct as "devious" and "under-handed".
The Building Industry Taskforce was supplanted, last week, by a permanent Building and Construction Commission with expanded coercive powers.
Taskforce officers, who have drawn repeated judicial censure for their tactics, have been transferred to the beefed-up Commission to be headed by anti-worker activist, John Lloyd, a previous staffer with former Workplace Relations Minister Peter Reith.
CFMEU Victorian official, Jesse Madisson, said the Commission was continuing the "secret squirrel" tactics adopted by its predecessor. It refuses to disclose its address and continues to record conversations.
Mr Madisson said building companies like Multiplex were "collateral damage" in the taskforce’s war on building workers’ wages and conditions.
"They are out to get workers and their unions, nobody else", he noted. "Despite deaths in our industry and chronic underpayments there has not been a single prosecution of any employer on those grounds. The only time they go after a building company is if they suspect they are co-operating with the union.
"The taskforce attitude to employers has been — if you don’t attack the union we will treat you the same as them. This was a classic example."
Groundwork for the taskforce was laid by the Federal Government’s $65 million Cole Royal Commission. It rejected level playing field arguments in favour of unbridled competition where employers that cut safety standards and cheated on tax or workers’ compensation could be used to deliver cheaper jobs.
The Cole Commission heard evidence from the Australian Taxation Office that bodgey sub-contractors were costing taxpayers billions of dollars, every year, through widespread non-compliance but it chose to target industry unions instead.
Prior to the Royal Commission, enterprise bargaining agreements had been an effective compliance guideline for head contractors because unions would not sign off with operators that openly rorted the system.
After a year of hearings, the Commission brought down findings that reworked political themes advanced by former Workplace Relations Minister, Tony Abbott.
On the basis of those findings, the Howard Government has legislated to block effective union organisers from building sites, outlaw industrial action, proscribe safety-related action and make it illegal to give preference to contractors who pay negotiated rates.
It has also made it unlawful for workers on different jobs to ask for the same wages and conditions.
These laws will be policed by the Building and Construction Commission. It uses lawyers and former policemen to rove around building sites who have the power to tape conversations; and order workers to hand over documents, attend secret interrogations and dob in workmates.
The Commission can bar workers from informing anyone, other than their lawyers, what transpired during an interrogation session. Building workers who breach any of those Commission instructions can be jailed or fined thousands of dollars.
Unions found to have been party to industrial action or to have tried to block bodgey operators face $110,000 fines for each breach.
CFMEU National Secretary, John Sutton, said the assault on building workers was a threat to the democratic rights of all Australians. He pointed out that the government had given officials the green light to spy on his members, build secret files on their industrial activities and even jail them for sticking up for one another.
"Every Australian should be concerned because the government has made it clear these laws are their blueprint for the whole workforce", Mr Sutton warned.