Shorts, not pants: Union fined close to $1m for disrupting work sites
By Anna PattyUpdated9 March 2018 — 4:25pmfirst published at 12:47pm
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The militant national construction union faces fines of close to $1 million for disrupting work sites in NSW and Queensland, and allegedly inciting workers to wear shorts, defying safety rules.
The penalty judgments come in the wake of the Fair Work Commission's approval of a merger between the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and the Maritime Union of Australia, with a total 144,000 members, combined revenue of $146 million a year and $310 million in assets.
The CFMEU and 19 officials were fined $817,500 after they shut down two major Brisbane worksites as part of a campaign allegedly aimed at forcing a company to sign the union's enterprise agreement.
The union and one of its officials were also fined $58,500 after allegedly inciting workers to wear shorts on a building site in Newcastle.
The Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) took legal action against the CFMEU after it encouraged workers to wear shorts and short-sleeved shirts in defiance of construction company John Holland's safety policy, which required long sleeves and long pants to be worn.
The ABCC alleged CFMEU official Pomare Auimatagi encouraged workers at a construction site at the University of Newcastle to wear shorts and a short-sleeved shirt to work, in breach of the company's work, health and safety policy for The Prevention and Management of Heat Stress.
The Federal Circuit Court found the union had breached the Fair Work Act in January 2014 by defying the so-called "two longs" safety policy.
The ABCC alleged Mr Auimatagi told workers words to the effect that “others will tell you that you’re using long sleeves for UV protection but you should have the choice.…I’m suggesting that you come to work and make a stand”. It was also alleged hewarned the project manager that if any worker was removed from the site then the whole site would stop work.
The Federal Circuit Court heard that a number of workers allegedly breached the safety policy by attending work in shorts and short-sleeved shirts.
After the project manager ordered a worker not to return to the site until he was wearing appropriate safety clothing, up to 50 workers allegedly stopped work for the rest of day.
In a penalty judgement on Thursday, Mr Auimatagi was fined $7,500 and the CFMEU was ordered to pay the maximum penalty of $51,000 "for deterrence".
Federal Circuit Court Justice Sylvia Emmett said the official's conduct had been found to be "nothing short of unconscionable" and the CFMEU's conduct to coerce John Holland into not exercising its workplace right to enforce its "two longs" safety policy was "reprehensible".
She said the union had an "appalling record of non-compliance and repeated contraventions of civil penalty provisions of industrial relations legislation".
ABCC Commissioner Stephen McBurney said the CFMEU's conduct had put the health and safety of workers at risk.
“The company’s safety policy is one most Australians are familiar with. The unlawful conduct of the CFMEU official was undertaken in defiance of that policy,” Mr McBurney said.
“I am concerned about a number of aspects of this case; firstly, the actions taken to undermine a policy designed to protect workers on site, secondly the CFMEU’s failure to acknowledge the consequences of those actions, thirdly the lack of remorse or contrition, and finally the history of offending referred to in the judgment of the court.”
In the Queensland case, Federal Court Justice Darryl Rangiah described the union's conduct as "deliberate, flagrant and systemic" with no attempts to comply with workplace laws.
'Scabs' and 'dogs'
Work stoppages took place at the $777 million Ennoggera Army Barracks and the $60 million QUT Kelvin Grove Campus two construction sites over several months in 2013.
The court heard that union officials tried to stop workers from entering the site and waved signs at them which said "gutless grubs", "weak as p-ss", "scabs" and "dogs". CFMEU Assistant State Secretary Jad Ingham allegedly said words to the effect that: "the sooner you sign the agreement, the sooner it will stop".
Mr McBurney said the level of intimidation directed at both the head contractor and the workers was "alarming".
“This was a protracted campaign orchestrated by repeat offenders intended to force the company to sign a CFMEU enterprise agreement," he said. “The penalties issued today by the Federal Court send a strong message that coercive and intimidatory behaviour will not be tolerated.”
'Holding businesses ransom'
Workplace Minister Craig Laundy said that "unfortunately these matters occurred before legislation to reinstate the ABCCcame into effect, which could have seen these penalties tripled".
“In recent years the courts have imposed fines of more than $13 million on CFMEU-related unions and officials for proven breaches of industrial law. As at 31 December 2017, there were 77 CFMEU officials before the courts," Mr Laundy said.
“We simply cannot afford this blatant lawlessness of the CFMEU, holding our businesses and economy to ransom.”
A CFMEU spokeswoman said the union "is considering the decisions”.
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Anna Patty is Workplace Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald. She is a former Education Editor, State Political Reporter and Health Reporter. Her reports on inequity in schools funding led to the Gonski reforms and won her national awards. Her coverage of health exposed unnecessary patient deaths at Campbelltown Hospital and led to judicial and parliamentary inquiries. At The Times of London, she exposed flaws in international medical trials.
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