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From the Desk of the Executive Director

Ken Phillips is co-founder and Executive Director of Independent Contractors of Australia. He is a published authority on independent contractor issues and directs research on related commercial and trade practices issues. Through his numerous articles in newspapers and think-tank and academic journals, Ken is known for approaching issues from outside normal perspectives and is frequently sought out for media comment.

Back to the bad old days

Friday, April 10, 2009

Violence appears to have re-emerged on Victorian construction sites. In the past few weeks, ordinary construction workers and their families have allegedly been threatened and several violent incidents have been reported---the history of the construction sector makes it reasonable to suggest that this is just the beginning.

Late last month a building inspector was taken to hospital after a union official allegedly head-butted him at a site in the northern suburbs of Melbourne.

The current West Gate Bridge upgrade has virtually stopped because of violence and threats. Correspondence to unions from contractor John Holland alleges a security guard has been threatened along with his family. Workers say they have been followed home and photographed and abused. Gates have been welded shut and vehicles smashed. Workers have been surrounded in their cars by groups of people threatening them with violence---one car allegedly being "pushed, kicked and rocked".

The same correspondence explains that the unions have court restraining orders against them which allegedly are being ignored.

What's happened in the last few weeks could almost be mistaken for a bikie-gang war. The contractors doing the work on the West Gate Bridge are reportedly using an ex-army troop carrier to move workers into and out of the site safely.

Last week this vehicle was allegedly pursued by several cars driven by men wearing balaclavas who approached the vehicle when it stopped. Police were called and five men have been charged with offences including assault related to the incident.

This war, however, is not between bikie gangs, but rather is an outcome of disputes between construction unions over who controls worksites. Some laugh off the violence in the construction industry as a bit of harmless 'biffo' between blokes. It's no joke. Under other circumstances it would be considered the worst form of workplace bullying. The allegations raised suggest it may extend beyond this to criminal behaviour.

Several years ago I was debating with a construction manager why his company didn't stare down intimidation from unions and enforce their rights. He looked at me and said: "You haven't had your life threatened and your children followed home from school." I conceded his point.

The situation changed when the Howard government bought in reforms to the construction industry about four years ago. It was one of the most important reforms they initiated. They established what is, in effect, a specialist standing royal commission, the Australian Building and Construction Commission. It has wide powers to police the industry and has been hugely effective. There has been a level of peace in the industry never before witnessed.

But the Rudd government is effectively closing the ABCC at the beginning of 2010. The government says it will replace it with a 'strong cop on the beat'. However the ABCC's powers have recently been watered down with the passing of the Fair Work Act. Recommendations being made for the structure and powers of the new body, indicate that the 'new cop' will have nowhere near the effectiveness of the ABCC.

The re-emergence of construction industry violence is consistent with this view. Some unions believe they are about to be delivered a return to the old days where they can leverage control of construction through violence. The people with the most to lose are the ordinary construction workers just interested in doing an honest days' work.

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