Unions ‘Right of Entry’ is fundamental to safety – so says Senator Nick Xenophon, and I agree with him.

Published: 6 Mar 2017

by Dave Noonan CFMEU National Assistant Secretary

Safety is a huge issue in the construction industry and it’s no exaggeration to say that many workers take their life into their hands when they walk on site in the morning. There’s not much confidence that the employer will enforce safety given that corporations go unpunished for breaking the law, even in the event of a workers’ death.

Earlier this month, our community was shocked and appalled that the charges against the builder responsible for the death of Jorge Castillo-Riffo in 2014, in Senator Xenophon’s home state, were dropped. A week later, another worker died on a site run by the same builder, again in Adelaide. Just over six months ago, Kay Catanzariti, was pictured leaving an ACT court, in tears, after being informed that the company responsible for the death of her son, Ben, would not be prosecuted.

So we were surprised by Senator Xenophon’s support for the amendments to the ABCC brought about by Senator Derryn Hinch’s backflip because it is at odds with his statements about safety and the significant role of unions in protecting members.

Both Senator Derryn Hinch, who claims his about face is a result of talking to a wide range of people over summer (despite failing to consult unions or workers in the industry) and Senator Xenophon sided with the Government to vote on a bill that delivers worse safety, leads to excessive overtime and further casualises an already itinerant industry.

They voted for amendments that now outlaw unions and employers being able to negotiate on union officials’ right to go on site to inspect safety, apprenticeship quotas, jobs going to Australian citizens over temporary visa holders and the use of Australian made products over cheaper, non-complying imports. These are issues that have been publicly and proudly supported by both Senators.

We can only conclude that either they have been hoodwinked by the Government, or they are willing participants in the ideological war against workers being waged by the Turnbull Government.

Either way, the PR spin they put on their independence, speaking up for ordinary Australians and careful and considered decision making, is false.

This amendment is about entrenching disadvantage for ordinary working people. Protections such as working hours and allowing people proper rest breaks, job security and working within your skills and experience are all under threat. And their votes have made it law.

The Federal Government have been hard at it for some time, attacking workers in the construction industry for their rates of pay, building a case for their desire to put more profits into the pockets of property developers and big corporations who have donated generously to the Liberal Party. These relentless attacks on workers’ pay have been happening while executive salaries have soared. The Master Builders Association – who have been promoting the Government’s ideological agenda at the cost of their members’ interests – have assisted by producing reports with conflated figures that do not represent the reality of the industry.

Senators Hinch and Xenophon have given the government the green light to downgrade workers’ pay and conditions in our industry that will further entrench the divide between the rich and the poor, widely reported for being the root of so many of our social and economic ills.

These amendments are not just about locking unions out of our legitimate role of negotiating on behalf of our members for their pay and conditions. Unions will be locked out of negotiating on matters that affect our members’ well-being and by extension, their families and communities.

Amidst the rantings of right wing politicians and their media allies, it is easy to forget the critical role Unions have played in delivering the fair, supportive and productive Australia we have today.

The CFMEU’s impairment policy is a case in point. It’s a collaborative initiative that seeks to create path ways for rehabilitation for those impaired by drug and alcohol, while at the same time maintaining a safe workplace. For more than twenty-five years, the union has worked on the ground providing care and counselling for workers, helping to turn people’s lives around. We have supported workers who have suffered substance abuse, lately dealing with the difficult and very harmful addiction of ICE – an issue that is close to Senator Xenophon’s heart.

We want to remind him of his declaration, prominently displayed on his website, that he won’t rest until there is ‘support for all those affected by ICE’ as his vote now prohibits our ability to advocate and implement an initiative that is recognised for improving the lives of workers, the industry, families and our community.

By voting for the ABCC amendments, Senators Hinch and Xenophon have gone against what they publicly profess and made it clear they stand with the only sector that will benefit from these changes: the corporations from the big end of town.