Ensuring law and order prevails on construction sites and investigating unlawful activity without fear or favour are key elements behind a new vision and mission set out recently by the boss of the public agency responsible for regulating workplace behaviour within the building sector in Australia.
In an update distributed to industry stakeholders on May 7, Fair Work Building and Construction (FWBC) Director Nigel Hadgkiss outlined a new vision to ensure building industry workplaces were productive and harmonious, along with a new mission for the agency to ensure the rule of law prevailed in the industry.
“It is my job to keep the agency’s eye on the ball, and on the end goal: that there are productive and harmonious worksites for all,” Hadgkiss wrote.
The building regulator’s new mission follows a change in leadership last year which in turn followed the change in national government and saw Hadgkiss and ex-commissioner of the former Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) John Lloyd appointed as director and chairperson of the agency’s advisory board respectively on October 21.
Hadgkiss himself served as Deputy Commissioner of the former ABCC from its creation in 2005 until 2008, and before that led the Howard Government’s Building Industry Taskforce for three years until it was subsumed by the ABCC.
At the same time, the agency relinquished its responsibility for investigating complaints relating to unpaid wages and entitlements and instead refocused its efforts upon dealing with unlawful activity.
Between October 21 and May 16 this year, the number of investigations it had open relating to right of entry breaches, unlawful industrial action and coercion jumped from four to 58, from 16 to 32 and from 13 to 29 respectively. Whereas no matters relating to freedom of association were being investigated at the time of the change, eight are now under examination.
Hadgkiss said his organisation has returned to its basic function of upholding law and order. He stressed that he wants to ensure all parties obey the law and that each of the parties – employers, workers and unions – are critical to workplace harmony.
“We’ve returned to what we used to do when I was here before (at the former ABCC) and I’ve called that ‘core business,’” he said. “That is really the thuggery that goes on in the industry: the coercion, the breaches of freedom of association, unlawful industrial action, adverse action and so on and so forth.”
While he is aware of criticism of his agency from union officials – many of whom see FWBC and its predecessor as a relic of the Howard era and an attack on workers – he said there will always be elements of the industry who feel it is in their interests to resist change and that employers and workers alike need a strong regulator with a sufficient level of power as well as a determination to enforce the law.
He added that a number of key strategies are essential, including providing stakeholders with timely and accurate guidance about their rights, responsibilities and obligations, ensuring the agency responds quickly when unlawful behaviour occurs and making sure agency personnel are visible and active on work sites.
The last of these is particularly important for workers who needed the ability to perform often difficult and dangerous work without undue hindrance from third parties.
Asked about the challenges he faces now compared with his earlier role with the former ABCC, Hadgkiss said the environment has become more difficult as penalties are less severe nowadays and the current agency’s powers are not as strong as those of its predecessor. He said unlawful activity has always been a reality within the industry and he was saddened that the situation had regressed in recent years.
He also acknowledged that achieving FWBC’s new mission will be challenging, but said he and his staff are determined to deliver.
“My agency cannot pick and choose who it investigates or brings before the courts,” he wrote in his concluding remarks in FWBC’s May 7 update. “I plan to uphold the law on construction sites, regardless of who breaks it.”
“I realise that achieving this vision and mission will be challenging. But I am determined, because you, the people who work in Australia’s building and construction industry not only deserve it, but need it.”