Keep big fines for illegal strikes: builders

In a report released by the government on Friday, Justice Murray Wilcox has recommended the penalties be brought in line with those imposed on other industries. MBA chief executive Wilhelm Harnisch said the industry needed special laws and higher penalties than would apply under the new Fair Work Act, set to replace the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act early next year.Maximum penalties for unlawful industrial action under the BCII Act are $22,000 for individuals and $110,000 for corporations – more than three times the penalties available under the Fair Work Act ($6600 and $33,000 respectively). In the report, Wilcox said building and construction was not the only industry that could be severely affected by industrial action.“One has only to think of our major export industries, most components of the transport industry, the gas and electricity industries, the telecommunication industry and emergency services such as police, ambulances and hospitals,” he said. “There is no less need to regulate industrial action in those industries than in the building and construction industry.”But Harnisch said Wilcox had not properly addressed construction contractors’ arguments that industrial action in their industry could lead to commercial failure faster than in other industries.“[That was] a major reason the Cole Royal Commission made the recommendations for the current penalties under the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act,” he said. “Infliction of liquidated damages for delays caused by industrial action can quickly bring down companies struggling to maintain cash flow.”Harnisch was more supportive of Wilcox’s recommendation that the compulsory interrogation powers now available to the Australian Building and Construction Commission be retained by the body that replaces it next year.“The coercive powers, as recommended by Mr Wilcox, should be available to get to the truth,” he said.Australian Constructors Association president and Leighton Holdings chief executive Wal King said the Wilcox report recognised that unlawfulness in the construction industry, particularly in Victoria and Western Australia, warranted special powers.The report recommended some procedural safeguards to deter misuse of the coercive powers, including the need for an attendance notice to be issued by a member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. King said it was essential that these safeguards did not impede the new specialist division’s work.Australian Industry Group chief executive Heather Ridout said that while some safeguards might be appropriate, it was also important that they were workable.Ridout echoed the MBA’s concerns about reducing fines for illegal strikes and said the penalties recommended “may need to be strengthened”. Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Jeff Lawrence said special laws for construction workers were unnecessary and unfair and a hangover from the Howard government’s attempt to give employers too much power and silence unions.“[The ABCC has] wasted millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money by pursuing offences as trivial as flying a Eureka flag and should be fully abolished,” he said.The Wilcox report is available online at http://www.workplace.gov.au/workplace/Publications/PolicyReviews/WilcoxConsultationProcess/News.htm

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