Features Australia

Barbarians at the gate

11 May 2019

9:00 AM

11 May 2019

9:00 AM

Federal Circuit Court Judge Salvatore Vasta once described the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) as ‘the most recidivist corporate offender in Australian history’.

That assertion is well and truly backed up by the facts. The building and construction industry continues to suffer from the decades-old approach of unions who believe the law doesn’t apply to them and their deployment of a business model based on bullying and intimidation.

Since the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) was re-established in December 2016, the CFMEU and their officials have racked up more than $8 million in fines. Last month, ABCC Commissioner Stephen McBurney said the agency had 38 cases before the courts, including 14 where the union had been found liable but a penalty was yet to be handed down.

When criticised for their abysmal record, the default CFMEU action is to pivot and portray themselves as noble Robin Hood type figures that are fully justified in breaking the law. This ‘the ends justify the means’ attitude was exemplified by ACTU boss and CFMEU sympathiser Sally McManus who infamously stated that unions breaking unjust laws is the ‘only moral path to fairness’.

There is nothing moral or fair in standing over workers in the industry or seeking to deny them freedom of association. Threats, intimidation, abuse, are all used by CFMEU officials. One example that epitomises their modus operandi is the foul and abusive language and physical intimidation on construction sites. For a perfect illustration of this just go to YouTube and type in ‘CFMEU official threatening fair work inspector’. The video says it all. This behaviour would never be accepted in any other workplace.

This kind of language isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s no wonder even Labor party luminaries such as Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd want to cut all ties with the CFMEU. Rudd described the CFMEU as a ‘blight on the good reputation on the Labor party and the trade union movement’. Hawke said ‘the union need to clean up their act and get their house in order. It just is appalling. I mean, I wouldn’t tolerate it. You know what I did with the Builders Labourers Federation – I would throw them out.’

Far from going down that path Bill Shorten has pledged to abolish the ABCC if Labor wins the election. Labor has received more than $11 million in donations from the CFMEU since 2000-01 and more than $4.2 million since Shorten became party leader. It sure looks as though Shorten is throwing red meat to one of his major donors rather than objectively, fairly and reasonably assessing the lie of the land.  Just notice whenever questions are raised about CFMEU donations, their bullying or law breaking Bill Shorten and his Labor colleagues avoid those questions. Unfortunately, it seems that many in the media don’t have the courage to press this point with him or ask follow-up questions. Unlike the recent example in Adelaide when a Channel 10 journalist, Jonathan Lea, asked Shorten five questions that he refused to answer concerning the cost of his plans to cut emissions in this country. It’s a pity other journalists don’t take the lead of Lea when it comes to the CFMEU or the abolition of the ABCC. Despite all the compelling evidence for the ABCC to be retained – the regular heavy fines and the complete lack of remorse shown by convicted officials for their actions – Shorten continues to double down in supporting the CFMEU.

A civilised society must respect the rule of law. For far too long, bullying has been normalised in the building and construction industry. Without the ABCC holding the CFMEU to account and bringing their appalling behaviour to the attention of the courts and the community, the union would just get away with bullying workers, building contractors and small business people.

Building and construction is the second largest industry in Australia, directly employing more than 1.1 million Australians and performing work valued at more than $220 billion annually, injecting more than $150 billion into our economy. Without the ABCC, the cost of construction would be around 30 per cent higher, meaning the community would pay more for schools, roads and hospitals through higher taxes and delayed projects.

Abolishing the ABCC would no doubt prove to be a massive financial windfall for the CFMEU. In their relentless campaign against the industry watchdog the union has peddled numerous untruths. For example, that the ABCC stops, prevents or hinders workers from raising safety concerns, and is linked with poor safety standards on construction sites. Legislation to establish the ABCC contains no provisions that would prevent legitimate safety issues from being raised and addressed by employees, unions or work health and safety regulators. Safe Work Australia data shows that both fatality and serious injury rates in construction are less now than a decade ago, meaning there are fewer accidents on construction sites.

Another CFMEU furphy is that the building and construction industry is dominated by casual employment. The reality is there are more full-time jobs in building and construction than any other industry or sector in Australia. In fact, one out of every seven full-time jobs throughout Australia is in building and construction. Rates of casual employment have remained steady for decades and at 12.7 per cent construction has one of the lowest percentage rates of casual workers. To put that figure in perspective, retail is 35.9 per cent and hospitality is 57.7 per cent.

Contrary to union claims that the ABCC ‘does nothing about wage theft’, wages and entitlements are a large part of the ABCC’s work. In 2018-19 the ABCC audited 139 employers, commenced 47 investigations into wages and entitlements cases, and recovered $262,398 in underpayments for 186 workers from 32 employers. The ABCC also imposes strict rules on construction sites to stop worker exploitation, including some which are tougher than any other industry. Under the ABCC Code, employers are banned if workers are ripped off, have stricter rules for using foreign workers, and must prove they protect local jobs.

Productive working relationships are based on mutual respect. Unions can play an important role in representing workers but they should not misrepresent reality in order to further their own interests and they should have to abide by the rules just like everyone else. The CFMEU’s substantial contravening history and continued flagrant disregard for the law show they are either unwilling or unable to modify their behaviour.

The barbarians are at the gate, and only the ABCC stands between them and the plundering of our $220 billion industry. I strongly suggest we keep the ABCC.

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