Unions say restored ABCC heralds rough times
Many will have heard Tony Abbott’s repeated promise that WorkChoices is “dead, buried and cremated”, but the watchdog created to enforce the old laws is coming back – and sporting a shiny new collar.
Unions from various trades and construction sectors are concerned that the restoration of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) will pave the way for a string of changes to industrial law.
Legislation to re-establish the body is expected when parliament resumes in November, after the Coalition pledged to fully restore the ABCC within 100 days of the election.
Employment Minister Eric Abetz says bringing back the ABCC is a move to crack down on union militancy and improve productivity.
“They start with a union that in their view is quite strong and maybe it is an easier target than taking penalty rates away from low-paid workers,” Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) boss Dave Noonan says.
“It is all about labour market deregulation, and it is all about trying to take out the strong unions first.”
The ABCC certainly has a chequered history for many workers. During the Prime Ministership of John Howard, ‘ABCC’ became an acronym synonymous with harsh laws, rigid enforcement, secret commissions, interrogations and interviews.
Director of Sydney University’s Workplace Research Centre, John Buchanan, says there may be some room to move, with clearly “rogue” operators needing to be controlled.
“There is no doubt that the industry is volatile, but we’ve got labour laws that should apply to everyone. You don’t pick and choose who you go after,” Buchanan says
“[But] if you’re accused of murder, you’re entitled to get a lawyer in.”
“As soon as you start to lower the standards for one group of workers, that will become a reference point for employers in other industries.”
“The current legislation clearly isn’t sufficiently tough enough to deal with the thuggery and intimidation that has unfortunately been a hallmark of the building and construction sector,” Senator Abetz said in a television interview this week.
In a seeming sign of things to come - former ABCC deputy commissioner Nigel Hadgkiss has been appointed director of a new Fair Work inspectorate, and former ABCC commissioner John Lloyd will chair its advisory board, Senator Abetz announced last week.
Industry groups and others that would gain from having less regulation and requirements for workers’ rights are understandably thrilled.
“The re-establishment of the ABCC with all of its former powers should give those who comply with the law nothing to worry about,” Australian Industry Group Chief Executive Innes Willox says.
“The laws and other arrangements were watered down over the past few years and the unlawful and inappropriate union conduct of the past has returned. The ABCC and associated laws need to be re-established without delay.”
The Master Builders Association wants the ABCC back as soon as possible to “suppress the industrial bastardry on Australian construction sites”.
The secretary of the ALP, George Wright says: “I suspect what you will see is a concerted effort by the government to really go after the unions first – union organisation and union finances – obviously as an entree to then have a go at members’ conditions.”
“During the period that the ABCC was in operation both multi-factor and labour productivity were flat and did not increase,” Mr Noonan said.
“In fact the great increases in labour productivity were prior to the introduction of the ABCC.”