The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has illustrated several matters in a recent media release – the safety of migrant labourers and the unacceptable rate of fatalities in the Australian Construction industry.  Sadly these issues were mentioned in a media release protesting about the continuation of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

The media release was published on the eve of a new head of the ABCC and clearly wanted to piggy-back on media attention of the appointment.  The new head has been announced to be a lawyer, Leigh Johns, who has a political pedigree that should make him more palatable to the union movement.  (Johns is the author of several published legal articles including one in 1998 on “the obligation of mutual trust and confidence” and a 2002 article on “Bribery and Networking“) His appointment could be interpreted as part of the Labour Government’s plan to gently ease the ABCC into an inspectorate that is integrated within the government structure.  The trade union ideology seems to require a continued animosity to this strategy, particularly as there is no resolution yet on ABCC action against Ark Tribe.

The media release criticises the ABCC in relation to the high fatality rate of the construction industry.  This criticism is misplaced and the question would be better posed to Safe Work Australia, particularly as the agency is gearing up for it’s annual OHS week at the end of October.

The matter of Korean labourers is more pertinent to industrial relations but again the ABCC is not necessarily the most effective target for criticism. Safe Work Australia, the Department of Immigration and the Workplace Relations Department all have a hand in the management of this labour movement issue that was of even greater concern during the Howard Government earlier this decade.

The establishment of the ABCC was a purely political initiative of the Howard Government.  It’s continued existence under a Labor Government is ideologically offensive to the union movement and continues to create political attention.  But the Labour Government indicated at the 2007 election, not in these terms, that the ABCC will continue until the union movement “behaves”.

The Australian union movement has changed considerably in the last few decades in response to political, economic and social pressures.  The heavily unionised construction unions are one of the slowest to change because, arguably, it has one of the strongest and proudest histories.  They seem to be in a process of trying to change, trying to retain a relevance whilst not denying their justifiably proud history.

The continuation of an organisation like the ABCC, one with a questionable legitimacy, should be objected to but this should not distract the union movement from other issues that have a more direct impact on people’s lives – the continuing high rate of fatalities in the construction industry and the exploitation of migrant labour.

Kevin Jones