Senators must know why workplace safety is first priority for unions and members

Australians remain sceptical about federal government motivations to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission despite the Coalition’s almost daily calls in Parliament and the media.

Turnbull’s LNP government called a double dissolution election in July after not being able to pass its building industry legislation through the Senate.

Turnbull had resorted to the playbook of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who spent more than $50 million of taxpayers’ money on a royal commission designed to smear unions and their work.

Union members of Queensland – some 360,000 of them – saw first-hand how the Coalition attacked unions to achieve its political agenda.

The teachers, nurses, firefighters, public servants, childcare workers, hospitality staff, train drivers (and the list goes on) know their unions have been fighting for their wages and working conditions without any hint of wrongdoing.

The union movement cannot and does not allow corruption, and it should be referred to police and weeded out wherever it exists, no matter what industry.

Our objective of improving society for the benefits of members and the community is clearly undermined when individuals behave corruptly.

In fact the Heydon Royal Commission in Queensland actually recommended more charges of corruption be laid against building industry executives than anyone else.

While the attack on unions was Turnbull’s justification for calling the July election, the ABCC issue barely raised a ripple and the federal Coalition scraped back into government with major questions lingering over its future plans for the nation.

There is much more support for a federal independent corruption commission, and a royal commission in the banking industry, than the ABCC.

The splintered makeup of the new Senate will make it even more difficult for the Turnbull government to pass its union-busting ABCC through the upper house.

The Prime Minister is yet to convince the many crossbench Senators and the Australian public that these laws are no more than re-heating Abbott’s blatant attempt to shut down a political opponent using the “corruption” card.

Recent research from Essential shows that almost two-thirds of Australians do not give a hoot about the ABCC.

But Australians do care about safety in the workplace, and the right to take industrial action to improve health and safety is widely supported in the community.

October 2016 in Queensland will be remembered as a month of tragedy, with at least seven unexpected and avoidable fatalities in establishments ranging from construction sites to amusement parks to council buses.

Safe Work Australia statistics show that as at 27 October, 143 Australian workers have been killed at work in 2016.

Safety in the workplace is a major priority for all unions. In some industries, the risk of injury or death is far higher than others. Workers in construction, transport and agriculture are many more times likely to be killed at work than other industries. These industries account for more than 70 per cent of fatalities so far this year.

That’s why union representatives of these workers are so forthright and outspoken in their protection of workplace safety.

This concern is being reflected in the undertaking by the Palaszczuk Labor government to look at introducing industrial manslaughter legislation into state Parliament. Such laws would make organisations, directors and senior officers of organisations criminally liable for workplace fatalities.

Any attempt to limit the ability of unions to monitor workplace safety is wrong. It is doubly dangerous to use the false premise of “stamping out corruption” through the ABCC to attempt to stop unions standing up for workplace safety.

A wide range of professional and research organisations and community representatives, including cross-bench Senators in previous and current Parliaments, have echoed and acted on concerns about the restoration of the ABCC.

The McKell Institute says a federal building code attached to the ABCC bill would decrease apprentices on building projects and increase workers on 457 temporary skilled worker visas. The progressive think tank has produced an analysis of the building code reframing it as “highly prescriptive red tape” that could increase strikes because existing agreements must be renegotiated.

The Law Council has particularly highlighted the dangers to natural justice inherent in the legislation.

Respected professions such as education practitioners have campaigned against the ABCC and for the retention of workplace rights for construction workers.

The ABCC will also affect workers in the transport and manufacturing industries, as the proposed Bill  expands the definition of “building work” to cover the transportation or supply of goods to building sites and offshore resources platforms.

The Australian Education Union (SA Branch) highlights the injustices of the ABCC in a letter to senators on 15 July 2015:

“Australian workers, ourselves included, live under some of the most restrictive and unjust definitions of ‘protected industrial action’ in the developed world. To increase the penalties applicable under this system is unacceptable to us.”

The spate of workplace fatalities in recent weeks make it even more important for unions to have a voice on workplace safety.

It is vital that the new cross-bench Senators prefer evidence over inference as they begin considering their position on the ABCC and other anti-union legislation.

Join the union campaign at calling on key Senators to vote down the ABCC when it comes into Parliament in the coming months.

The most important thing for workers in any industry is to come home safe to their families at the end of the day.

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