IR laws in hard focus

WA’S industrial relations system has come under the spotlight this week with the State Government’s controversial IR Reform Bill being debated in Parliament and the Royal Commission into Corruption in the Building Industry rolling into town.

The Royal Commission, headed by Terrence Cole, was welcomed by a rowdy march organised by the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union.

The union called a strike that halted work on eight large CBD construction sites and a further 25 sites around Perth.

Master Builders Association managing director Michael McLean said while it would be hard to assess the full cost of the strike action, he believed several million dollars was not unrealistic.

In the opening address to the hearing, counsel assisting the commission John Agius said there had been a history of intimidation from the unions involved in WA’s building industry.

There also had been allegations that witnesses called before the commission would be intimidated.

CFMEU State secretary Kevin Reynolds has denied any attempts to intimidate witnesses and has branded the commission a “kangaroo court” aimed at getting rid of his organisation.

Mr Cole closed the hearing to the public after the opening address.

It will be hearing evidence in WA for the next four weeks.

And while the Cole Commission was hearing evidence about union intimidation, small businesses fearing a bigger taste of that medicine tried to raise those fears with Employment and Consumer Protection Minister John Kobelke at a Stirling Business Association luncheon.

The small businesses appear most concerned about the union right of entry provisions enshrined in the IR Reform Bill.

However, Mr Kobelke missed the golden opportunity to hear small business concerns. He had asked to address the luncheon, which drew a near record number of SBA members, but begged off at the last minute, citing Parliamentary duties.

Instead, his policy adviser Bob Horstman was sent to answer small business’ concerns.

Small business owners were already angry because the Government had not studied how its proposed laws will impact on small business – something it promised to do with every piece of legislation it introduced – and the minister’s non-appearance did nothing to settle their mood.

Arrix Integrated’s Mark Berry said the Government’s legislation could allow the unions, if they so desired, to employ outlaw motorcycle gang members as their representatives to intimidate small business owners into falling into line with union demands.

“My concern is that the legislation allows access to the workplace to anyone nominated by the union. There is no effective vetting of that person’s authority,” Mr Berry said.

“And you can interpret the Bill to mean that union inspectors can access information to ascertain a company’s ability to meet employee liabilities. That certainly goes beyond the time and wages records everyone is talking about.

“It’s getting into the realms of commercially confidential information.”

Maxwell Robinson and Phelps director Bob Phelps said he had personally faced union intimidation and wanted to know what the Government would do about it.

“You get threats against yourself, your family and your kids,” Mr Phelps said.

Mr Horstman said small businesses “should have confidence” that the Government would ensure right of entry provisions were not being abused.

An SBA member in the domestic cleaning industry, who spoke to Business News on condition of anonymity, expressed fears her business would be forced to close by the removal of workplace agreements.

Mr Horstman replied that it would “not be as bad as you make out”.

“The whole of your industry will be faced with the same framework,” he said.

After the meeting, the SBA member told Business News her concerns stemmed from the cleaning industry not being covered by an Award. The closest substitute is the Contract Cleaners Award, which applies to the cleaning of commercial premises and calls for much higher rates of pay than domestic cleaning.

“I fear that once these laws come in the unions will harass me and try and force me to pay on a higher Award,” she said.

“At any point the union could go through my time and wages records and force an enterprise order.

“Based on my previous experience I’ve found dealing with the union to be a wrenching experience. I don’t have the energy to both run my business and run scared from the union.”

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