Abbott to construction workers: drop dead

It’s a sickening equation, but not a surprising one. The Abbott government’s resurrection of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) will kill workers.

I started working in commercial construction in Melbourne in the late 1990s. After any serious safety incident, the entire workforce on site would stop work, meet and debate a motion to take protest strike action. Nothing concentrates the mind of a building site foreman like the threat of lost production. So, not surprisingly, Melbourne construction sites were the safest in the country.

From late 2005, under the threat of massive fines from the ABCC for this type of “unlawful industrial action”, this approach to policing health and safety was wound back. The results were as sickening as they were predictable.

In the period June 2004 to June 2005, before the introduction of the ABCC, 28 workers were killed in “traumatic injury fatalities” on Australian construction sites. The creation of the ABCC in late 2005 led to a sharp spike in this figure. In 2005-06, fatalities jumped to 43 workers, and then to 50 workers dead the following year. While unions have worked to rein in this carnage, the level of death and injury has still not returned to the pre-ABCC levels.

This is partly because, even under Labor, the ABCC never really went away. There were legal changes and the ABCC was wound back to be part of the “Fair Work” bureaucracy.

Even so, the Fair Work Building Commission proudly boasts of extracting more than $600,000 in fines from unions for “unlawful industrial action” in just the past six months. This is on top of the $1 million in fines handed down in September against 117 individual construction workers, over an eight-day strike at the Pluto gas hub development in Western Australia in late 2008. These are reported to be the largest fines ever imposed against individual workers for taking industrial action in Australia.

What should be a basic right, of workers to withdraw their labour, was violated under Labor as well as Liberal. And now Abbott is moving to revive the ABCC with its full range of powers and penalties.

John Lloyd, a former ABCC commissioner, has been announced as chairman of the new body. Lloyd has spent the last couple of years in the pay of the Institute for Public Affairs, the well-known right wing “think tank”. Nigel Hadgkiss, another veteran of the ABCC under Howard, has been appointed the ABCC’s director. Hadgkiss has been working for the Victorian Liberal government’s anti-union task force, making wild allegations last year of “violence and thuggery” from bikies, thugs and organised crime in Victoria’s construction industry. The violence of workers being killed and maimed, or course, doesn’t rate a mention.

Under Abbott, the ABCC will be given the power to police offshore construction, a clear targeting of the militant Western Australian branch of the Maritime Union of Australia.

The union campaign against the ABCC needs to step up. Literally millions of dollars in fines have been handed over by the construction unions with barely a public murmur, and the threat of further massive fines has been effective in curbing much industrial action.

On the other hand, the union campaign was at its strongest when taking up the cases of individual unionists – such as Ark Tribe and Noel Washington – who were targeted by the ABCC. Widespread publicity and the threat of solidarity industrial action contributed to these charges being dropped or thrown out of court. For construction workers, a dramatic escalation in this sort of defiant public campaigning is – literally – a matter of life and death.

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