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Greens restate opposition to ABCC

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 13 Sep 2007

The Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (OHS) Bill 2007 deals with a very important issue. It deals with safety in the building and construction industry. There is no question that the building and construction industry is one of the most dangerous industries in Australia, and this is recognised across the board. When introducing this bill the minister acknowledged that fatalities in this industry make up one-third of all workplace fatalities, and that there are over 30 injuries per day. The Australian Greens will not be opposing this bill. This is because the bill contains much needed provisions for a health and safety accreditation scheme for building contractors. However, we believe it is important to recognise that this scheme exists within the context of the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act.

We have, in the past, put on record our opposition to this act, and to the Australian Building and Construction Commission that it creates. This is an act that the Australian Greens are steadfastly opposed to, and we will continue to oppose it. It is an act which we believe has seriously undermined the health and safety gains made in recent decades for workers within the building and construction sector. We do not want to see a return to the bad old days of Australian construction sites when you had 17-year-olds falling off buildings on their first day of work, or when there were no toilets or sheds on worksites, and when there were few safety rules and even less enforcement to ensure that there were no unsafe work practices. There are a number of reasons for our opposition to the BCII Act, one of which is the way it has undermined the health and safety of workers in the building industry. The primary purpose of the act, we believe, is to intimidate building workers and stop them from doing what are otherwise considered their lawful duties in our democratic society. We have grave concerns that the restriction of legitimate union activity, whether directly or indirectly, will impact adversely on health and safety at building sites across Australia.

In a previous speech in this place, I outlined our concerns about this act and how the ABCC have been operating, particularly the way these laws remove basic civil and democratic rights of workers. The ABCC have been given what are very clearly coercive powers, and I have heard worrying stories about the way in which they have been using them. Due to this act, ordinary Australian workers have no right of silence, limited access to bona fide legal representation and a threat of six months jail for being involved in or possibly having knowledge of industrial actions that were not illegal at the time that they were said to have occurred. The workers caught up by these laws are being denied basic democratic rights to procedural fairness and natural justice that all of us normally take for granted. These workers are being treated with fewer rights than someone who has committed a very serious criminal offence.

It is all very well for the government to use the sphere of 'union bosses' in an attempt to justify this act, but the reality is that this act is hurting ordinary Australian workers. There are now well over 100 workers who have been prosecuted- some would say persecuted-under the act. The arbitrary and extreme way in which the ABCC operates has led, as I understand it, to people being prosecuted, even in circumstances where they were not present at a site to take the industrial action that is the subject of the prosecution. That is extraordinary. These people have been put through extraordinary distress in a period of their lives, with prosecutions, legal bills and court hearings as part of what effectively amounts to an ideological assault.

Imagine being on leave or working on a different site, then something happens at work-which you are not involved in and may not even know anything about-and the next thing that happens is that you are prosecuted. Some of the stories of people affected by this act can be seen in a new film that is available on DVD entitled Constructing Fear: Australia's Secret Industrial Inquisition. It is a very apt title. Fear is what this act is about. I have also heard other stories about what practices this act is leading to: breaches of safety regulations, very unsafe work practices, which workers are in fact starting to document and which will, I think, come to light in the near future. We need to take a serious look at the impact of this act on workers' health and safety.

Recently I was contacted by a constituent who has been prosecuted under these laws. I will not go into the details of his case because it is still ongoing, but I wish to read to the chamber how this person described his experiences. He is now having difficulty finding work, which has led to him going into increasing debt. He says: I was a contributing member of society and am now threatened with jail, fines and a huge bill even if I win. I have not recovered from my debts but I am finding little bits of work, most of which is outside my trade as a carpenter. I believe that these workers are courageously facing an assault from a government which is pursuing an ideological agenda and they need our support. He goes on to say: I cannot on my name leave such a mess for future generations. I will get some comfort from the fact that I will be able to sleep with a clear conscience and can only hope that those that use workers as political pawns lose theirs. These are emotive words, but they reflect the reality of the effect of these laws on people's lives. It is simply not sufficient to justify laws that are hurting ordinary working people in the way these laws are purely on the grounds of profitability and economic returns.

The Greens' point is simple: we should not be allowing bosses in this or any other industry to gamble with workers' lives. Cutting corners on workplace health and safety is clearly a form of gambling: a few bucks saved and a few extra minutes worked here and there in the hope that an accident will never happen. The costs of losing this gamble are enormous not only in the loss of lives-which is a reality-and injuries but also in terms of down time and lost productivity, which occurs when things go wrong. The odds are that, if you are dropping occupational health and safety standards, sooner or later something will go wrong. This is the kind of gamble that we should not be letting anyone even attempt.

Previously in this place I have told stories of Perth's construction boom, which illustrates this culture of cutting corners-for example, where crane drivers have been threatened with prosecution if they take longer than five minutes each morning with their pre-start safety checks and of construction workers on the railway working 13 long days without a break and then being told they have no choice but to work the following weekend. Behind each of these stories was the threat from the boss that they would bring in the ABCC. We are told by the government that they want to move us into a less adversarial industrial relations environment, yet there is no more adversarial body than the ABCC and its modus operandi. These comments are relevant to the bill before this place today because the Greens, like many others, hold grave concerns that a consequence of this act and the activities of the ABCC will be to intimidate workers into silence on occupational health and safety issues and, further, that they will intimidate workers into not wanting to be an occupational health and safety representative on site, which will hinder the very important role unions play in ensuring safe workplaces. This will, potentially, lead to even worse health and safety outcomes on building sites and even more workers and their families suffering injury. We believe this is unacceptable.

I now turn briefly, because I am aware of the time allotted to me, to some of the issues which Senator Murray has just raised. We believe that the Greens have the best industrial relations policies of all the parties, as I think Senator Murray articulated in his way. We want to see the end of Work Choices. This issue has been raised publicly. For your benefit, Senator Murray, in case you missed Lateline last week or the week before last, the leader of the Australian Greens, Senator Brown, articulated our position on Work Choices. We are unequivocally opposed to it and want to get rid of it. We will not vote to see it retained, but we will push the ALP to improve their policy. We have made no secret of the fact that we are extremely concerned about the ALP's policy, we will do everything we can to encourage them to improve their policy and we will negotiate with them to try and achieve some amendments, but we will not let Work Choices stand if we can do a single thing about it. Does that clarify matters for you, Senator Murray?

Senator Murray - I wanted to know if you were going to vote for the ALP bill.

Senator Siewert - We will look at the bill when it comes through and we will try to amend it to improve it. However, as I said, we are unequivocally opposed to Work Choices and will do everything we can to move to a fairer and more just industrial relations system in this country. Moving back to the bill, the Greens do not oppose the bill, but we seek to put on record our extreme concerns with the BCII Act and the modus operandi of the ABCC. We do not think it should continue to operate in its manner of intimidating workers, with its coercive powers. We believe it has no place in a democratic Australia and we will seek to do everything we can to have it disbanded as soon as possible.

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