ABCC has powers wound back as federal government prepares its abolition

tony burke wages abcc summit

Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations Tony Burke. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

The government this week will take the first step in killing off the controversial Australian Building and Construction Commission by stripping back its powers “to the bare legal minimum”.

The government promised before the election that it would scrap the commission and Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke said on Sunday this was a “downpayment” on that commitment. Legislation for the ABCC’s end will come in later this year.

The ABCC has long been a political football, and has been bitterly opposed by the powerful Construction Forestry Maritime Mining And Energy Union.

Burke said in a statement that in Tuesday’s changes, some of the ABCC’s powers would go back to the Fair Work Ombudsman and to health and safety regulators. “Its most ridiculous powers will be scrapped altogether.”

He said the ABCC was “politicised and discredited”. It had been set up by the Coalition “to discredit and dismantle unions and undermine the pay, conditions and job security” of workers.

“Workers and their representatives shouldn’t be harassed by a body that wastes taxpayers’ money on trivial nonsense like what stickers a worker might have on their helmet or whether a union logo might appear in a safety sign.”

Building workers should be subject to the same rules as other workers, Burke said. But since the Coalition brought in the building code, “construction employers and workers on government-funded building jobs have been subject to restrictions that don’t apply to people in other industries.

“The amended building code removes these restrictions, including prohibited enterprise agreement content requirements that are not imposed on other workers.

“Building and construction workers will now be able to freely bargain for agreements in the same way as other workers – including agreements that include clauses promoting job security, jobs for apprentices, and safety at work.”

Shadow Workplace Relations Minister Michaelia Cash predicted chaos in the industry when the ABCC was abolished.

“Working days lost rose from 24,000 in 2011-12 to 89,000 in 2012-13 when Bill Shorten abolished the ABCC. But since the ABCC was re-established by the Coalition in December 2016, the commission has proved effective at tackling union excesses head on,” she said.

“We can now expect jobs will be lost, one of the nation’s most militant unions the CFMMEU will run riot, building costs will sky-rocket and large and small businesses will fold.’’

The Australian Industry Group condemned the government’s move and urged consultation with stakeholders.

CEO Innes Willox said it was a “backward step for the fight against bullying and intimidation and will add costs and delays to vital community infrastructure such as roads, hospitals and schools”.

But ACTU secretary Sally McManus welcomed “the removal of the anti-worker aspects of the building code as the first and important steps to the Albanese government implementing their election commitment to abolish the ABCC”.

“The code was one of the ideological projects of the previous government who spent nearly a decade attacking unions and suppressing wages,” she said.

The government is looking to a wide range of industrial relations changes, especially to improve the efficiency of enterprise bargaining. This will be one topic for the September jobs summit.

Asked on the ABC when we would see real wages growth, Burke said “we need to get wages moving and you can’t turn that around on a dime”.

He expressed concern that “increasingly I’m seeing reports where negotiations on bargaining aren’t simply about whether or not there should be a pay rise but some employers threatening just to unilaterally cancel agreements so that workers at this point in time could be facing an immediate real wage cut, like a dollar wage cut”.

Michelle Grattan is a Professorial Fellow from the University of Canberra.

This is a shortened version of an article first published by The Conversation. Read the original article.


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