Threat to building

UNION unrest within the first weeks of the Gallop Government's reign threatens to bring WA's construction industry to a standstill.

Builders are concerned WA's construction industry, which had been showing signs of strengthening, would be hamstrung by the union's efforts.

Costs are tipped to rise and investment in WA is expected to dry up.

Chamber of Commerce and Industry director operations Brendan McCarthy said a lot of the costs from the renewed union unrest would remain unseen.

"It will come in the form of buildings not being built, employees not getting employed and investments not coming to WA," Mr McCarthy said.

Similar union action in Victoria following the election of its Labor Government in 1999 stalled that State's building industry for several months.

The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union has led raids on several Perth building sites recently.

Builders claim between 15 and 30 CFMEU members led by assistant secretary Joe McDonald have arrived on sites to intimidate workers and push for compulsory unionism.

Besides the financial concerns, builders are concerned violence will break out on Perth's building sites.

BGC Constructions general manager construction Gerry Forde likened the union's tactics to 1930s-style gangsterism.

"They are entering sites illegally," Mr Forde said.

"We're dealing with people whose way of doing business is bullying and thuggery.

"The confidence in the market place has been due to a stable industrial relations environment.

"Now we have no mechanism to deal with the McDonald gang."

As was the case in Victoria, the CFMEU is trying to force builders to sign pattern agreements.

The Victorian agreements included things such as one in, all in overtime conditions and a training provision under which the employer had to give the employee time off for any training the employee wanted to undertake, whether it was job-related or not and pay the employee for the training time.

Sub-contractors, which comprise most of the labour on building sites, bear the brunt of these agreements.

Master Builders Association executive director Michael McLean said unions were trying to put workers onto wages that were 70 per cent above the award and 20 per cent to 30 per cent above market rates through their pattern agreements.

"A general labourer would earn about $58,000 a year on a 38-hour week," Mr McLean said.

Combined Small Business Assoc-iations of WA president Oliver Moon said small businesses in Victoria had pattern agreements foisted on them and suffered for it.

"How contractors can survive on the conditions imposed by those agree-ments is beyond me," Mr Moon said.

Increased labour costs are not the only extra expenses sub-contractors suffer under pattern agreements.

The Electrical Trades Union won a case in the Victorian Federal Court that allows it to charge non-union employees a $500 annual fee if they are working on sites where they have instituted a pattern agreement.

The union claimed it was entering sites that were unsafe. However, unions have no legal right to enter sites to check on safety. They can only enter sites on industrial matters and have to officially notify the builder.

CFMEU assistant secretary Joe McDonald said his union had been fighting for right of access to construction sites for the past five years.

He denied as many as 30 unionists had turned up on sites.

However, Mr McDonald said he had taken 15 men with him to the Bluewater Apartments work site for protection.

"We've had two union organisers beaten up on that site," he said.

Mr McDonald denied his union used safety as an excuse to enter work sites.

"But it's difficult for a union official to walk past issues where workers' safety is at risk," he said.

The organisation that held the unions in check for the past few years, the Building and Construction Industry Taskforce, is being disbanded.

The Labor Party had branded it a political tool since its inception in 1993.

Instead, the Government will reinstate the Department of Product-ivity and Labour Relations inspectorate.

Mr McLean said the task force had created a culture on WA's building sites that most had been happy to embrace.

"The unions didn't like the task force because they felt it restricted them. The taskforce promoted the idea of freedom of association and took out the no-ticket, no-start regime," he said.

"The task force also prosecuted a few builders that were doing the wrong thing."

A spokesman for Industrial Relations Minister John Kobelke said the Minister had met with both the unions and building industry representatives.

The spokesman said Mr Kobelke was not ready to make any announcements about how he would tackle the problem.

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