Abbott lays down new laws for building and construction  industry


Abbott lays down new laws for building and construction industry

A draft Bill released today by the Minister for Workplace Relations, Tony Abbott, would establish a new‘watchdog’ for the building and construction industry and create large financial penalties for unlawful industrial action.


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A draft Bill released today by the Minister for Workplace Relations, Tony Abbott, would establish a new ‘watchdog’ for the building and construction industry and create large financial penalties for unlawful industrial action.

Secret ballots would have to be held before industrial action could be taken and unlawful industrial action under the bill could attract penalties of up to $110,000.  

The Bill also severely limits pattern bargaining, giving employer the ability to seek injunctions to stop pattern bargaining occurring in both Federal and State systems. The Bill also introduces a mandatory cooling off periods after two weeks’ industrial action in pursuit of a single business agreement.

The draft legislation comes in the wake of the Cole Royal Commission into the Building and Construction industry and implements 120 of the Commission’s recommendations.

One of the key features of the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill (the BCII Bill) is that it would establish a ‘watchdog’ in the form of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).


The ABCC would be headed up by a Commissioner, and supported by Deputy Commissioners. ABCC inspectors would regularly visit building sites to monitor compliance with the Workplace Relations Act, the BCII Bill and the Federal Government’s Code of Conduct for the Construction Industry. The ABCC would have the power to enforce and prosecute for legislative non-compliance.

The ABCC’s inspectors would be backed up by a team of lawyers, financial analysts, industry experts and support staff. A summary of the bill says ‘the ABCC will rely on a range of sources to monitor and act on issues in the industry [such as] telephone hotlines, spot visits at the invitation of a party [and’ referrals from police, the Australian Taxation Office, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), peak industry bodies and unions.

The ABCC will also be able to engage a ‘loss assessor to determine the cost toan employer of industrial action'.

The new body is analogous to the establishment of the Affirmative Action Agency, said Joe Catanzariti, head of Clayton Utz’s Workplace Relations practice.

It establishes a ‘detailed system of reporting’ that would involve naming non-compliers in parliament and a system of annual reporting.

Although a statutory body, the ABCC could also be given written directions from the Minister.

Federal Safety Commissioner

The Bill also creates a Federal Safety Commissioner, which would oversee OHS compliance on Commonwealth funded construction projects. Through an accreditation scheme, the FSC will test contractors’ OHS credentials on-the-job, as well as through management policies and systems before they commence work.

On his initial reading, Catanzariti said the Bill would somewhat curtail industrial action on the basis of OHS concerns. Under the Bill the FSC would need to be notified, along with employers, before industrial action could be taken, he said.

Award simplification

The Bill provides for further simplification of building and construction industry awards. The legislation will include a requirement that the AIRC take into account the desirability of reducing the number of allowances when it simplifies a building award.

Awards will be limited to providing only basic minimum entitlements. The scope of some existing allowable matters will be tightened.

Freedom of Association

A general prohibition on coercion to join or not join a union or an employer organisation, or to remain or resign from such organisations.

Right of Entry (RoE)

The BCII Bill provides that where a Federal permit is suspended or revoked, entry to a building site is not permitted under State law (State laws for RoE for OHS purposes are unaffected.)

The Bill also will also ‘significantly expand the grounds for suspension or revocation of permits to ensure that only ‘fit and proper’ persons exercise rights of entry.’

Abbott’s comment

The Bill will ‘establish the industrial equivalent of a "cop on the beat" to ensure that the rule of law applies on building sites no less than in residential neighbourhoods’,Abbott said today.

‘The Cole Royal Commission found a lawless industry that had a deep-seated culture of disregard for criminal, civil and industrial laws’, the Minister said.

Union response

The Federal Government’s draft legislation for the construction industry is an unjustified attack on the rights of workers and unions in the industry, the ACTU said.

ACTU secretary, Greg Combet said that despite ‘spending more than $60 million on a Royal Commission which has produced little, the Government is careering ahead with biased, anti-union legislation for the construction industry.’

‘The Royal Commission could find only two instances in the last three years of alleged breaches by unions of Industrial Relations Commission orders’.

‘On the basis of this flawed approach, Tony Abbott is trying to force building workers into a legal straightjacket.’

Combet said legislation ‘would allow employees and unions to be sued into bankruptcy for being involved in normal collective bargaining to improve their wages, conditions and safety’.

Combet said that problems in the construction industry - including safety breaches, tax fraud and compliance issues - should be dealt with through an industry round-table of state and federal governments and agencies. 

CFMEU national secretary, John Sutton said the legislation takes away the basic right to pursue industrial action.

‘Under the Abbott proposals, sub-contractors would have a green light to avoid their legal responsibilities, costing the government millions in revenue and putting building workers lives at risk through lax workplace safety.’

‘What this legislation is really designed to protect are the dodgy contractors who hide behind legal tricks to avoid their legal entitlements.’

‘Industry wide wages and conditions - so-called pattern bargaining - is the only way to ensure this industry - which makes billions of dollars annually - is conducted in a civilised manner.'

Employer response

The Master Builders Australia, the peak body for the building and construction industry, strongly supported the Bill.

‘The current workplace relations system had failed the industry and therefore separate industry specific workplace relations legislation was needed’, Master Builders’ CEO, Wilhelm Harnisch, said

‘The criminality and general lawlessness found to exist [by the Royal Commission] are morally objectionable. They have no place in any sector of the economy.

‘This sort of corrupt and quasi-corrupt conduct has lead to the building unions being sent to the industrial sin bin in the past - as John Sutton boasted in October 2002, all the main union’s making up today's CFMEU, namely BWIU, BLF and FEDFA, have all been subject to periods of deregistration.’

He said the Master Builders have called for the reforms set out in the draft Bill for some time. ‘The implementation of this Bill will restore confidence in the industry and rightfully return the power in the industry from unions to employers and employees.’

‘As an example, the new rights of entry laws will bring clarity to an area of law that is crying out for an overhaul. It is inefficient and confusing for there to be State and Commonwealth right of entry laws that are not uniform. A unitary system will bring greater compliance.'

Four-week comment period

The Bill was released today for public comment the exposure draft of the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill.

The Government is seeking Democrat support to pass the Bill through the Senate.

The Bill largely excludes the domestic housing sector, but would cover some employees and/or employees that operate in both the domestic and non-domestic housing sector. But Abbott also said today he would consider implementing the same changes in other industries.

The exposure draft and explanatory material are available on the Workplace Relations Department website. Comments can be submitted (either online or by post) by 17 October, 2003.

The Bill is expected to be introduced into Parliament in early November.




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