Jeff Lawrence: Rights hammered

Imagine being dragged into a secret interview room, placed under interrogation for several hours and then not being allowed to tell anyone about it. Not your family, your best mate, or — through the news media— the Australian community.

Perhaps, in some special cases, such as a terrorism investigation, our society could tolerate such powers. But few Australians would realise this exact scenario can and does occur in the building and construction industry.

Before the Howard Government created WorkChoices, they created another set of workplace laws that applied only to the commercial construction industry. These laws strip away important human rights for construction workers.

To enforce these laws the former Howard government set up the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner (ABCC).

The Rudd government has committed to abolishing the ABCC in 2010, but we believe it is fundamentally wrong that one set of workers have fewer rights than the rest. There should be no delay in removing one of the worst aspects of WorkChoices.

Few industries experience more workplace deaths than construction. Safety must be the first priority. It should eclipse all other issues. But the fact that construction workers have fewer rights than all other workers does have an impact on their ability to be safe on the job.

They can be fined up to $22,000 for stopping work, forcing them to weigh  up whether a risk to safety is greater than the potential penalty. It is a deterrent to raising genuine safety issues on a dangerous site.

In theory, the ABCC has the power to investigate both employers and workers. However, 84 per cent of investigations have involved working people and their unions. And despite sham contracting and underpaying of wages being big issues in construction industry, only 2 per cent of the ABCC investigations have involved employers.

In some respects, the ABCC has more powers than the police. Every week ordinary people are hauled before the ABCC to answer questions. Its interviews are akin to an interrogation.

If you refuse to attend an ABCC interview, or if you refuse to answer questions, you face six months’ jail. There is no right to silence. The only person you can take into the interview is your lawyer, who has a limited and heavily constrained role — and even this is subject to the approval from the commissioner.

Most of the time the ABCC also prohibits the person from telling anyone except their lawyer what happened in the meeting. The people brought in by the ABCC are usually just witnesses—witnesses to happenings that could be as mundane as a workplace meeting.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that more vulnerable workers are being singled out: apprentices, migrants, and women. The ABCC tells the Government it needs these powers to prosecute unlawful action.

Yet, out of 85 people the commission has brought before it, so far only 13 have been interrogated about a matter that has resulted in court-imposed penalties.

This situation has been brought to a head by the case of Noel Washington, a Victorian office holder with the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, who faces up to six months in jail on charges of refusing to answer questions in an ABCC interview about what took place at an off-site
meeting ofworkers in Melbourne.

He will appear in court next month. For those in one of our most dangerous industries (40 people died in 2007-8) it is simply not good enough. In all my years of standing up for working people I have never witnessed Australian workplace laws that infringe on so many basic rights.

It is unfair and discriminatory that construction workers have fewer rights than all others. It is appalling that Australia has laws that refuse ordinary people the right to silence, and then also deny them the ability to speak out about what has happened.

These laws and the ABCC are the legacy of theHoward Government’s radical industrial relations agenda— it is time the Rudd Government threw them in the bin with WorkChoices.

Originally appeared in Herald Sun (14.08.08)