Leave your human rights at the door

by

Jenny Haines

Leave Your Human Rights at the Door was a forum jointly organised by the NSW Greens, the NSW CFMEU and the Teachers Federation, an interesting and novel combination of forces that upset some members of the Labor Party. It was held at the Teachers Federation Auditorium in Sydney on November 1.

The key speaker for the Greens was Chris Harris, currently Deputy Mayor of Sydney and rumoured to be a canditate against Tanya Plibersek for the Federal Seat of Sydney. The ALP could have joined in the organisation of this event, but there seems to be a marked reluctance in the ALP to have much to do with anything the Greens are involved in, despite the fact that in these threatening and dangerous times, the ALP and the Greens need to work together if they are both to survive.

The meeting was a timely review of the campaign against Howard’s reactionary workplace legislation. Chaired by Andrew Ferguson, NSW secretary of the CFMEU, the meeting was attended by about 200 activists from each of the organising groups.Unions NSW secretary John Robertson reviewed the campaign so far: how it began and where it was going. Since Howard won control of the Senate and passed the Workchoices legislation and the Building Industry Improvement Act, there had been wins for the opponents of this legislation, he said.

Some of these were:

  • The shift in public opinion. Polls are now showing that the public is very worried about this legislation and its effect on their living standards.
  • The changing public opinion in rural areas. During a 10,000km tour of NSW, he encountered a very warm welcome on returning to places for a second time.
  • The $55 million advertising campaign of the federal government because it was having difficulty selling the legislation to the public.
  • Surprisingly ( or maybe not, if you know your ALP politics), Robertson mentioned that getting Kim Beazley to commit to tearing up the law enabling individual workplace agreements was a win for the campaign.
  • Robertson said the campaign in opposition to the legislation was about building power. We have to build people power, and not leave the exercise of power to the politicians. The trade union movement had become too blase in the 1990s. We have to build a movement that sustains itself beyond 2007. We can’t let Bishops Jensen and Pell squib on their stated opposition to this legislation. He may also have been suggesting that we can’t let Beazley squib if he wins power.

    Robertson said we have to build a campaign that will be the undoing of John Howard. To do this we need an army of people engaging other members of the community, talking with other members of the community, getting political, getting involved.

    Andrew Ferguson turned the meeting to the question of safety in the workplace, a critical issue for the CFMEU, as one building worker per week is killed on the job in Australia. Andrea Veigas’s husband, Glen, 28 years old, was killed on the job on October 24, 2004, because his employer placed profit ahead of safety. She said her fear was that Howard’s industrial laws guaranteed more accidents in workplaces.

    Ferguson then showed a video on workplace safety prepared by the Victorian branch of the CFMEU. The CFMEU is trying to raise the money to run the advertisement on national television.

    As a sign of the times, Ferguson was then unable to talk about a dispute that the CFMEU had been involved in as he had been required to sign a “non-disparagement” clause. This dispute was the one that was the subject of a recent report on Today Tonight. While Ferguson couldn’t talk about the dispute, there was nothing to stopping Elizabeth, an officer of the Finance Sector Union, who spoke of the dispute at RTBC, Villawood, which employed Indian guest workers, who had paid thousands of dollars to the company for the priviledge of being brought to Australia to work. The workers were living in cramped accomodation at the factory, paying $100 weekly rent.

    On October 13, a Friday, they were given individual agreements, to be signed by the following Monday. They were told if they didn’t sign the AWAs, which offered them worse conditions than they were already on, they would no longer have jobs. They all refused to sign, and contacted the CFMEU. For doing this, they were sacked and evicted from the accomodation at the factory on October 20. They are now homeless, and staying temporarily in the offices of the CFMEU at Lidcombe. Thes workers had joined the union and elected a delegate, Rajan Kandasamy, who reported that the CFMEU had negotiated with their employer and they were now to return to work.

    Jin Woong Kim, a 46 year old Korean illegal immigrant, speaking through an interpreter, told the meeting he worked in a factory at Bankstown 18 hours a day, seven days a week. He received no holiday pay or sick leave. After he lost the middle finger of his right hand in an accident he received no wages for three months. His medical expenses came to $3600. When he returned to work, the employer made arrangements to deduct his medical expenses from his pay. On May 19, all the fingers on his left hand were chopped off in another accident. The employer has no workers compensation insurance and hee has received no wages since May 2006. His employer, knowing he is an illegal immigrant, reported him to the Immigration Department and he now faces deportation to Korea, but with his injuries, he can no longer return to his former occupation of truck driving in Korea. He and a dozen or so Korean workermates have joined the CFMEU and are picketing the factory, which may be forced to close down. They chanted in Korean, “unity and fight”.

    Barry Hemsworth from Botany Cranes is in the 57th day of his vigil after being sacked. He noted that there is 12 months to the next federal election. It seems he is prepared to keep his vigil going for that time. He said he had received wonderful support across the trade union movement and the Community Support Network which has had two early morning blockades, although the company appeared to have been tipped off about the last one. He has an unlawful dismissal case before the Industrial Commission but he can’t pursue unfair dismissal as the company employs less than 100 workers. Irrespective of the outcome of the Industrial Commission case, the CFMEU is seeking Hemsworth’s reinstatement, Andrew Ferguson said.

    Maree O’Halloran from the Teachers Federation said in Howard’s Australia it wasn’t just a matter of leaving your human rights at the door, you also had to leave your human values at the door of the public school. The Howard government wants public schools to do its dirty work, reinforcing class and social stratification. Students going into workplaces were now visiting places they shouldn’t be seeing. Alexandra Park students doing school apprenticeships were told if they couldn’t do an apprenticeship if they didn’t sign an individual workplace agreement. The Teachers Federation has appealed to the state government to use its powers to protect the students as children younger than 18. The A to E school grading system was part of the Howard government’s efforst to stratify Australian society. When students were told 10 to 12 times a week what grade they were, they soon got the message as to their place in society. O’Halloran said the Teachers Federation would do all it could to defeat the Howard government.

    Keren McWhinney of the CFMEU office for the recovery of workers monies, then sang “The Ballad of 1891” the last line of which is: “When you jail a man for striking, its a rich man’s country yet.” Some things don’t change.

    Chris Harris for the Greens confidently predicted that fair-minded Australians would get rid of Workchoices, the Building Industry Improvement Act and Welfare to Work. They would see these laws as an attempt to drive down living standards. He briefly reviewed the main provisions of these laws and noted that in Australia now a common criminal has more rights than a worker. His father was a builder’s laborer and by 65 he was worn out. He said the Howard government was obsessed with demonising people receiving welfare. The drive by the government to cut pay and conditions, destroy bargaining power and impose the harshest of conditions, shamed us all. We have to kick out Howard at the next election and Debnam in NSW should not be elected as he would dismantle state awards. Chris Harris said the Greens were delighted to stand shoulder to shoulder with the CFMEU and the Teachers Federation.

    Introducing Mal Peters from Mandurah and his wife Bernadette, Andrew Ferguson noted that the Building Industry Taskforce had already interrogated 27 workers, 13 with no legal representation. Workers who appeared before the taskforce had no right to choose their own legal representative.

    Since Mal Peters was last in NSW, he has been sacked by Leightons, his employer in WA. After his tour of Australia in support of the Mandurah workers, who face fines up to $28,000, he returned to work, but before he started on the first day he was told he was terminated for operational reasons, and given 30 minutes to leave the premises or security would throw him out. He now has an unfair dismissal case before the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. He said he would countinue to fight, and funds that had been collected would be spent on legal fees. He and his fellow workers would keep fighting and would hold Labor to account. He finished his speech with the old BLF slogan: “Dare to struggle, dare to win. If you don’t fight, you lose!”

    Bernadette Peters said she her father had been a Scottish miner, who spent all his life working underground. He was a fighter and so was she. She was impressed by the support of Australian and international unions.

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