Senate debates

Thursday, 13 February 2020


Australian Building and Construction Commission; Consideration

3:41 pm

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

After reading the report of the ABCC you see the truth at the heart of this organisation. It's an organisation designed to attack working people and unions, their representatives. It is an organisation designed to hamper the ability of working people to fight for safety in their industry or to chase down stolen wages or superannuation. How do we know this? Because even though the ABCC have the power to chase employers they are loath to do so. Instead, they spend a disproportionate amount of taxpayers' money on attacking and prosecuting unions rather than pursuing crooks running construction sites. They allow shonky employers off the hook on wages, entitlements, safety and standards—law-breakers who unfairly compete with those employers who fairly pay their workers and abide by the law. Despite being required by legislation to act as an independent regulator of both unions and employers in construction, the ABCC practises one standard for unions and a different standard for employers.

In answer to questions I put at estimates last year, it was revealed that the ABCC spent $3.2 million of taxpayers' money on activities prosecuting unions, union officials and workers; yet, since being reinstated in 2016, the ABCC has recovered only $1 million in unpaid wages. They've spent three times more on chasing unions than the amount they've managed to recover for workers in an industry which is highly exploitative.

In the same answers to questions, the ABCC admitted that since December 2016 they had made no referrals of sham contracting to the Fair Work Ombudsman. They also revealed that the ABCC had never investigated what role employer associations play in instances of wage and superannuation theft. What was clear was that the ABCC has one agenda: attack unions in the construction industry. In their reports for the previous financial year it was revealed that less than 15 per cent of their internal legal costs was spent on investigating or prosecuting theft of wages and entitlements or instances of sham contracting. Since 2016 they have launched six times more prosecutions against the CFMMEU than they have against employers.

If the ABCC aren't pursuing companies, what are they up to? They're of course on the ongoing legal case between Lendlease and the ABCC over the flying of the Eureka flag at worksites. That's where they're spending the money—on a case about flags! Of course, how much they've spent is not mentioned in their quarterly report. The ABCC's directive is that construction companies could be banned from federal contracts if workers on worksites fly the Eureka flag or have union stickers on hard hats. That the ABCC is more concerned with stickers and flags than it is with wage theft, which has become rife, is a joke within that industry.

This very report shows that, from 1 July to 30 December, the ABCC spent more than four times as much time investigating issues of industrial action or right of entry than it spent on wages and entitlements. As Dave Noonan, National Secretary of the CFMMEU, eloquently put it:

This agency acts like the Stasi when it comes to unions and workers and like Mr Whippy when it comes to employers.

All of this is in an industry that is plagued by continuous safety issues, often leading to work deaths and fatalities. Here in Canberra, in January, a 47-year-old construction worker at a residential building site died while unloading material from a truck. The resulting safety blitz found some 70 breaches across 28 sites, of which 19 sites had prohibition notices imposed until the breaches were rectified. Another death occurred only 200 metres from the site.

The ACT Work Safety Commissioner said:

To say I'm disappointed in the lack of a safety culture in the ACT residential building sector is a gross understatement.

Perhaps the ABCC should focus on the continuing issues of safety and wage theft plaguing the industry rather than on flags and stickers.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.