Back to All News

ABCC won't improve productivity, just attack working Australians

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 29 Nov 2016

I rise to speak on the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013. I comment first on the name of the bill—'improving productivity'. We know that this bill is not tackling the key issues that are required to improve productivity. This bill is basically an attack on unions. The ABCC has been hanging over this parliament for the whole 2½ years that I have been here. It has been the subject of a lot of debate. The Greens have been opposed to it from the very beginning because it is clear that it is setting out to attack people's rights to fair and reasonable employment conditions in the building industry. It was one of the triggers for the double dissolution election but then hardly rated a mention during the whole election campaign. That is understandable; it is not the key issue in the electorate. Most people are not concerned about supposed corruption in the building industry. But it is the concern, the fixation, of the government because they want to attack their political enemies. It is not about getting rid of corruption. If they were interested in getting rid of corruption, there are a lot of other things that we could be doing. This is a way to attack their political enemies.

Over the 2½ years that I have been here, parliament has exposed this government's supposed concern over corruption and wrongdoing as farcical. If there is criminality in employment in the building industry, if there is criminality by unions, why do we not address that through the criminal justice system? If the law is not strong enough then strengthen the law, but strengthen it so that it applies to all and is not just focused on people working in building and construction. The government is not interested in doing this. It wants one rule for its political enemies and other rules for the rest of business. The Australian people are starkly aware of this truth. It has been made even clearer by the government's refusal to support the Greens' call for a royal commission into the big banks and the financial sector—a sector where we have heard time and time again of alleged misconduct. This white-collar crime has affected the lives of tens of thousands of victims. So why is the focus just on unions? We already have a construction industry watchdog—Fair Work Building and Construction. Again, if there are things that are not working to address criminality then strengthen the controls in that commission. We do not need to set up another commission that is going to make unacceptable, undemocratic attacks on people working in the building and construction industry.

If the government were serious about tackling corruption and wrongdoing overall, it would get behind the Greens' call to set up a royal commission into the financial sector and the Greens' call for a national ICAC—an ICAC that would be a broad-based, national anticorruption watchdog with the power to look at employers as well as employees, not only in the construction industry but in every industry. It would have the power to look at politicians as well as public servants and decision-makers. Instead of supporting the creation of these two important bodies, the government is continuing its attack on unions through the creation of the ABCC. This bill to bring back the ABCC is a linchpin in the government's ongoing attacks on unions.

Let us think about unions and why they have survived and are such a vital part of Australian society. Unions look after workers. Trade unions were founded with the purpose of protecting the rights and interests of the workers they represent. We see time and time again that, when things go wrong in workplaces, it is the union that steps up and looks after affected workers. It is the same in the building construction industry, with the CFMEU stepping up time and time again to defend and to advance the rights of building construction workers. It is not the Office of the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate, which is what this government wants to turn into the ABCC.

This bill would give workers in the construction industry fewer rights at work just because of the industry they work in. It would give them fewer rights at work than accused criminals or even accused terrorists. With this bill, the government wants to set up a new secret police in the construction industry that would have the right to take workers off-site and pull them in for questioning. They will not have the right to silence and they will not be able to talk to others about the fact that they have been pulled in for this secret questioning. This is not the type of Australia that I want to be living in, where we have a secret police that can pull people aside and they cannot even talk to anyone about the fact that they are being accused of these actions. It is a star chamber that they want to set up, without justification.

There are real issues in the construction industry that need to be addressed. There are people being injured and tragically dying on construction sites every week. Construction sites have the potential to be very dangerous places unless you get conditions right, unless you have all the watchdogs, unless you have the safeguards. When we see attacks from the government trying to reduce these safeguards, then we see an increase in injuries and deaths at work.

There are other issues in the construction industry. There are many workers coming in from overseas who are being exploited, who are being employed by labour hire contractors, who are working for $10 or $12 an hour. The government could be working to stamp out that sham contracting, but no. The government come along and say, 'There are problems in the construction industry and we want more powers to deal with them.' Are they coming along and saying, 'There are too many people dying in the construction industry every week'? No. Are they saying, 'We're finding too many exploited workers coming in from overseas, working for $10 or $12 an hour'? Are they dealing with that? No. Are they saying there are not enough locals, not enough apprentices or that there are not enough jobs for them? No. They are coming in and saying, 'We want you to give us more powers so that we can prosecute the very people at workplaces who are looking after the interests of people who turn up to work and who do not come home at the end of the day.'

We could be looking at sham contracting. We could be looking at the practice where subcontractors, who are under a lot of pressure, sometimes from big international developers, say, 'We'll give you a job, but only if you pretend you're an independent business, come along with an ABN and look after your own insurance and holidays.' The government could be tackling sham contracting, but they are not doing it.

Other parts of this bill also deserve attention. I am particularly concerned about the building code that is being set up by this bill and the limitations that that building code is going to put on enterprise agreements. Under this bill, if there is a clause in your local workplace agreement that says, 'We want to make sure that young Australians get a job, so we are going to guarantee that there will be a certain percentage of apprentices on this job so that young people can be trained up,' this building code will say that you cannot do that. If you want a clause in your agreement that says, 'We are going to give a certain number of positions to Indigenous Australians to ensure that they get a step up,' or, 'We are going to have some requirements about local labour to ensure that local workers get some of the spoils of international investment and the mining boom,' this building code will say that that cannot happen. The code will prohibit clauses that require employers to look for local workers first.

It will prohibit clauses that prevent unlimited ordinary working hours, which means that unions will not be able to place restrictions on the number of hours worked. That in itself is going to lead to an increase in worker deaths and work injuries because of fatigue, because of workers being forced to work longer than is safe. Not being able to place limits on the number of ordinary hours worked is going to really challenge the ability of workers to have stable and secure shift arrangements and rosters, which will impact on their family lives. It means the whole work-life balance of being able to go to work knowing that these are the hours you are working and that you are going to be able to get home to pick up your children from child care is not going to be possible. It means you can say, 'Yes, I can work tomorrow because I know that my children have child care,' and then be told, 'No, you are not working tomorrow,' or that you can suddenly be asked to work on a day when you do not have child care for your children.

This building code is going to prohibit union officials from coming onto the site to assist with dispute settlement processes. It is going to prohibit limits on labour hire and casual work. All of these things that have been included in enterprise agreements and included in workplace practices are there because they lead to much better conditions, lead to much safer and more sociable working conditions, and lead to workers actually having decent rights at work.

The key thing is that, by having this building code, this supposedly free market government are going to have a seat at every negotiating table around the country. They are going to be able to write what is in and out of our enterprise agreements around this country. They are going to be able to say, 'Well, you might have negotiated yourself some good conditions, but we don't think they are good enough, so by force of law we're going to take them away from you.' They are going to impose a code under this legislation that says to a subcontractor or a small company: 'If you ever want to get work on a government job, you'd better not promise to take on more apprentices. You'd better not promise to take on more Indigenous Australians. You'd better not give the union representatives the right to come in and inspect safety, because if you want that we're not going to give you any work.'

The government are claiming that they are improving productivity and cracking down on wrongdoing in unions, yet the Greens and the Australian people see this for what it really is. It is an attack on people's rights at work and it is a distraction from dealing with the very real issues of corruption and wrongdoing that span every industry. The Greens oppose this bill but, even more so, we want to stop the charade of attacking one particular section of society that just happens to be the political opponent of the government. So let's use this as an opportunity to tackle corruption more broadly. The Greens have for many, many years pushed—

We need to stop the charade of attacking one particular section of society that just happens to be the political opponents of the government. Let us use this as an opportunity to tackle corruption more broadly. For many years, the Greens have pushed for a national independent commission against corruption—a national ICAC, a national corruption watchdog—because we know that is what is needed, rather than this ABCC bill that just tackles one part of society. We need a national ICAC because transparency and integrity are fundamentally important.

I urge all members of this house to support our second reading amendment, ditch this bill and get on with establishing a national anticorruption watchdog. I move our second reading amendment:

At the end of the motion, add:

", but the Senate calls on the Government to introduce legislation to establish a national independent broad based anti-corruption body that has wide ranging powers, including the power to investigate politicians, and that this bill should not come into effect until such legislation has been passed by the Senate.".

I also want to foreshadow amendments that we will be moving in the committee stage if this bill passes through its second reading.

Given that the building industry code is going to regulate, in the smallest detail, what can and cannot be in every building enterprise agreement around the country if this bill is passed, then at the very least we can try to ensure that this highly prescriptive building code at least does some good. When we know that Prime Minister Turnbull desperately wants this bill to be passed before Christmas. He went to an election on this bill and his authority is tied up with getting this bill passed. This is putting the crossbenchers in a very powerful position. Our amendments that we are moving will see whether these crossbenchers are actually willing to stand up to the government or whether they are going to roll over and have their tummies tickled.

The Greens will not be supporting this bill even if it is amended, because we reckon that it is bad legislation. However, if there are crossbenchers who want this bill passed—the One Nation team, the Nick Xenophon Team or Senator Derryn Hinch—then at the very least we think that they should use their power to ensure that this highly prescriptive building code does some good. To that end, in the committee stage, we are going to be moving two sets of amendments: one on local steel and one on local jobs.

The local steel amendments are going to be amending the bill so that the building code must include a requirement for 90 per cent local steel to be used on any project covered by the code, with exemptions for special steel that cannot be obtained here or manufactured here at a reasonable cost. This would be a big boost for steelmaking in this country, especially boosting and really improving the conditions that Arrium are operating under. Senator Xenophon talked big about supporting Arrium in the lead-up to the election. Supporting our amendments will be his chance to do something about that.

On local jobs, we will be moving amendments that will require that, where the building code applies, jobs have to be advertised locally and the employer must demonstrate that there are no suitable local applicants before guest workers can be used. We have been advocating this position for a long time. It will be a test for the crossbenchers—for the One Nation team, the Nick Xenophon Team and Senator Hinch—to put their votes where their rhetoric is and to support local jobs.

We are calling on the crossbenchers, those who profess their commitment to Australian jobs and industry, to do something about it and to support our amendments. Will the crossbenchers be rolling over, having their tummies tickled and giving a Christmas present to the government with very little to show in return? By supporting our amendments, they will be able to do something to support their local community, support local jobs and have a small positive coming out of what is overall very bad legislation.

In conclusion, the Greens would prefer this bill to be rejected in its entirety. We think it is bad legislation, it is scapegoating workers in the construction industry and it is giving them fewer rights than accused criminals. It does not tackle the real issues of corruption in our society. The Greens are calling upon this Senate to reject this bill, to move on tackling corruption across society and to legislate for a national ICAC.

Back to All News