The fragility inherent to the governance of regulatory standards and the impact that it has on the validity of the training and accreditation of persons working in the building and construction sector was once again on display with the reporting of a case in NSW that involved industrial scale fraud to sell essential workplace credentials.

In this instance, the training qualification related to the AQF level 1 course “CPCCOHS1001A Work Safely in the Construction Industry.” Whilst the learning content and complexity of this single unit of study is fairly simplistic in nature, it is directly linked to the issuance of a ‘white card’ or general ‘Construction Induction Card’ (CIC). The qualification and accreditation is required for all workers who want to carry out construction work.

This requirement is part of the NSW Work Health & Safety Act and Regulation (2011) and is replicated by equivalent legislation that operates in most other states and territories, albeit with the nomination of a different ‘colour’ for their cards. It’s another example of the absurdity of the abandonment of a simple COAG reform that could easily establish a uniform, single point process that would mark us down as a smart ‘nation’ rather than just a bunch of separate, and at times, disparate, states and territories happy to plod along within our own quirky jurisdictions.

Safework NSW (formerly NSW Work Cover) is our authority on this matter and on their website they claim that people who need a white card include:

  • Site managers, supervisors, surveyors, labourers and tradespeople
  • People who access operational construction zones (unaccompanied or not directly supervised by an inducted person)
  • Workers whose employment causes them to routinely enter operational construction zones.

They probably thought they ran a pretty tight ship to ensure the validity of their system. The training and subsequent qualification must only be delivered by an ‘approved RTO’ to obtain the white card. That all sounds pretty rigorous until you have a close look at just how many ‘approved’ RTOs actually exist. It’s not difficult to become an official registered training provider with ASQA but it does come with some financial cost. The vast majority of RTOs are SMEs that must focus on issuing as many qualifications within the shortest periods of time to recoup their investment and keep all the wheels turning.

In NSW, the training and assessment process for the CPCCOHS1001A qualification cannot be done via on-line computer based delivery, so there is some degree of ‘face to face’ training and assessment that must be done by the RTO to prove the person undergoing the training and assessment and being issued with the qualification and card is actually the same person. But there is a glaring loophole in the process. Here’s how Safework NSW describes it on their website:

“Construction workers can work in NSW using construction induction cards issued by other states and territories.”

See what they just did? The wonders of such obvious inconsistency across multiple sets of bureaucracies is a constant source of amusement and also offers up occasional enterprising opportunities if you were so inclined. And both inclination and enterprise are what led Mr. Kelvin Fong to procure up to 400 ‘white card’ qualifications, along with some other qualifications to obtain accreditation for high risk work categories such as ‘working at height’ and sell them to other unidentified persons.

In March, the Daily Telegraph’s Sarah Crawford reported that:

“Police fear hundreds of people with limited English are working illegally on building sites across the state using dodgy construction induction cards after paying a Sydney man to sit their tests for the certificates. Kelvin Fong, 37, was jailed for at least six months for procuring up to 400 construction induction cards — known as “white cards” — and Working at Heights Certifications for unqualified workers in what Magistrate Jennifer Giles described as a “breathtakingly serious offence” that “filled her with dread”. “You have armed people whose English is poor and who are entirely unqualified to be on building sites and you have armed them to be there with numerous of our families, relatives and friends working on those sites,” she said last week. The court was told that authorities were unable to track down most of the card holders — meaning there could be hundreds of people still working.”

So how did the enterprising Fong manage to do this? He simply completed an online ‘course’ over 400 times using false names with an RTO that is based in Queensland where that type of ‘training’ delivery is permitted. He then relied on the Safework NSW ‘loophole’ to recognise qualifications from other states and sold them for between $90 and $140 apiece. That’s a free enterprise system at work.

Not that long ago, the vast majority of workers in the building construction sector that had managed to obtain authentic qualifications along with any associated accreditation and licencing that accompanied it could generally be relied upon. Most had studied hard, learnt lessons and were trained properly. They were frequently and rigorously examined by formal standardised testing that was almost impossible to cheat on.

Government agencies could rely on the very high quality standards of publicly operated teaching and learning institutions delivered by our universities and TAFE colleges. They could do this with a high degree of certainty because they had the security of knowing that the institutions operated under the basic principle that has best served our society and economy over many decades. It meant that if a person was awarded a qualification from that institution then they really had actually learnt it and had earned it.

There were no financial strings attached on institutions to ‘process’ and ‘pass’ as many paying customers as possible to support a profit focused business operation. Gross stupidity is probably too lenient a description to give the designers (or rather the demolishers) of such a reliable system of training in Australia. But finger pointing and blame shifting will get us nowhere.

The type of behaviour exemplified by this single example has been exhibited repeatedly by both individuals and organisations that are out to make a quick buck. This basic malfeasance should have been highly anticipated when government and their affiliated agencies chose to effectively abrogate regulatory control of occupational licencing to private sector businesses. The best we can think of the wholesale destruction of a reliable training system is that it was an unintended consequence of bad policy and worse governance. The alternative is that it was a culpable and intentional plan. The share registries of all private RTOs could reveal who has benefited most to make money out of privatising the Australian training system.

All agencies who have responsibilities for issuing licences and other forms of worker accreditation across the broad range of building and construction sector should be immediately re-examining their alleged control mechanisms. Clearly, they aren’t working. The basic tenants of risk management are to plan, implement, check, review and adjust where necessary. It is past necessary. It is time to adjust.

Safework NSW and the NSW Office of Fair Trade should be setting up strategic talks with their peak, government controlled educational institutions with a goal to develop a reliable and high quality system of authenticating the training standards and alleged competencies for all persons who have ‘acquired’ their qualifications from any private RTO operating in NSW or elsewhere prior to issuance of all licences or other forms of worker accreditation. It would be a relatively simple and low cost process to ensure that qualification standards have actually been met by the person who is applying for a licence.  A measure such as this would help restore confidence in the industry over time.

Former PM Paul Keating offered some advice that you should never risk getting caught between a state Premier and a bucket of federally funded money at a COAG conference. Based on the evidence to date, it is an equally pertinent analogy to the rise of the privately operated, for profit ‘Registered Training Organisations’ that have been primarily focused on ‘selling’ off nationally recognised qualifications for the express purpose of occupational licensing and workplace accreditation. It can be stopped. It must be stopped. Premier Berejiklian has no choice but step up to this challenge for the sake of NSW’s future.