The construction watchdog is back, but the industry is in no better shape than it was a decade ago, says Australian Building and Construction Commissioner Nigel Hadgkiss.
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ABCC Commissioner Nigel Hadgkiss.

After being abolished by the Gillard government in May 2012, the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) was re-established in December 2016 by the Turnbull government, which promised to address unlawful industrial action and coercion in the construction sector.

The ABCC's restoration came after sustained advocacy from the property and construction industry, backed by a raft of research which underscored the long-term economic cost of unlawful industrial action.

The 2016 report from the Menzies Research Centre, for example, found that days lost to industrial action increased by 34 per cent after the ABCC was abolished.

The real-world examples of the costs borne by the industry are simply eye-watering.

Just months after the ABCC was wound up, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) embarked on an illegal blockade of a Melbourne development which reportedly cost Grocon $500,000 a day over 16 days, and Grocon's cement supplier Boral an estimated $20 million.

The ABCC's objective is to promote an "improved workplace relations framework" that ensures building work is carried out "fairly, efficiently and productively for the benefit of all building industry participants, without distinction," Hadgkiss (pictured) says.

But he admits his team has a lot of work to do.

"I have been engaged in this kind of role for 14 years and the industry is in no better shape than it was in 2002," he said.

"You only have to read the judgements coming out of the courts to see why it is so important that we focus on enforcing the rule of law.

"In this year alone, we have seen judges describe CFMEU action on worksites as ‘deplorable', ‘arrogant', ‘high-handed', where CFMEU officials had simply ‘taken the law into their own hands' and where their actions ‘had the explicit object of inflicting commercial harm' on a business," Hadgkiss explained.

Business groups have long argued that the ABCC plays an important role in stopping unions from using sham safety disputes as an industrial weapon against employers.

In April, the federal court handed down a $590,800 fine to the CFMEU and 10 of its officials for coordinated unlawful industrial action in 2014 which shut down nine Victorian projects worth almost half a billion dollars.

In this case, Justice Jessup criticised the "groundless invocation of occupational health and safety as a pretext for entering a site".

In May, the CFMEU was penalised $80,000 and one of its delegates $6000 after he demanded two workers on a Kelvin Grove apartment complex in Brisbane each pay $1290 in union fees. Judge Michael Jarrett criticised the CFMEU's "deplorable history of compliance with industrial laws".

Since its reinstatement, the ABCC has responded to more than 4300 hotline calls, online enquiries and emails, Hadgkiss says, and his team is "putting in place policies and processes for investigating compliance with the Fair Work Act in the industry," including wages and entitlements, misclassification issues and sham contracting.

"We also engage with stakeholders to assist them to comply with the Building Code," he said.

When it uncovers non-compliance with the Code, the ABCC will take appropriate action.

"We have seen one sanction being imposed by the Minister on a Brisbane-based builder earlier this year, and I have also issued ‘show-cause' letters to three other companies across the country," Hadgkiss said.

Hadgkiss acknowledges the work of the Property Council, through the Property Male Champions of Change, to boost the participation of women in the industry as a driver of productivity and cultural change in workplaces.

"If the ABCC's work provides greater participation for women to join the more than one million people working in the sector, then that can only be a positive benefit," Hadgkiss added.

"There may also be benefit in dealing with cases of bullying and intimidation in the workplace where it manifests itself as coercion and undue pressure.

"We remain absolutely committed to ensuring the rule of law is paramount in the industry. Breaches of workplace laws will continue to be effectively enforced, whether they are by employers, employees, or unions, and whether they are in relation to wages and entitlements, unlawful industrial action, coercion, discrimination, or right of entry."

For further information, advice and assistance please visit the ABCC website www.abcc.gov.au, contact the hotline on 1800 003 338, or send an email to enquiry@abcc.gov.au

This article was originally published by the Property Council of Australia.