Unions Dig In At Worksite Dispute

The Maritime Union of Australia has expressed concern at the plight of workers at the $1.5 billion Children's Hospital site at South Brisbane.

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The 650 workers at the site insist they will not go back to work until contractor Abigroup pays equal wages for the same job.

The industrial dispute has now entered its sixth week and construction workers say Abigroup is allowing sham contracting to force down the wages of subbies.

MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin said: “Sham contracting is a major issue in all industries, including the maritime industry, where it is a substitute for a commitment to genuine employment and maintenance of agreed standards of pay and conditions.

“Sham contracting is an issue for all trade unions and working men and women if the short-cutters and rorters are allowed to get their way.”

MUA Queensland Branch Secretary Mick Carr said: "Ultimately, the dispute is theirs to manage, but a defeat here is a defeat for the trade union movement and sends a message that employers can divide and rule working men and women in this and other industries by the use of sham contracting arrangements."

Abigroup says they should not have to deal with union muscle and is not yet negotiating any further on the crucial enterprise bargaining agreement.

They say construction workers are now carrying out illegal industrial action.

The truth is no work is going on, despite the Queensland government backing Fair Work Australia this week, upholding its earlier ruling and ordering workers back to the job.

One employee, Rod, has worked for more than 30 years in the construction industry. He has no intention of going back to work while Abigroup refuses to offer different sets of wages.

"I think it's a very important dispute," Rod says, sitting on the stairs of a church across the road from the hospital worksite.

"It is based around the enterprise bargaining agreement and there is one clause in there that specifically covers sub-contractors.

"The idea is to ensure that everyone that is working on the site that does the same job gets paid the same amount of money."

That has not happened.

At the heart of the dispute at South Brisbane was a decision by Abigroup to have subcontractors bid against each other – effectively undercutting their wages – to make sure it could deliver the project to the government at the best possible price.

The result was a big plaster business went broke.

Some say this is the way big businesses operate, however the workers say they are sick of subcontracting firms going broke as a result.

"It's a downward spiral," Rob says.

"Even on this site here the company that went broke ... they quoted millions of dollars under their competitors.

"And Abi still took those contractors on. I don't think Abi even cared that they went broke or not, it was a lower cost.

"And those blokes had a lot of blokes working under them, with individual contracts.

"This whole dispute is about having every worker on the site that is doing the same job, getting the same pay.

"I just think that is important to fight for. We are not giving in at this stage."

Virginia Clarke is a contract cleaner on the site. A long-time member of the Labor Party, she once stood for the ALP against Pauline Hanson, when the One Nation MP decided to leave the seat of Oxley and run in the then-new seat of Blair.

Workers were happy for her to speak on their behalf.

Ms Clarke says the workers will not return to work because the basic concerns about the enterprise bargaining agreement are not being discussed by Abigroup.

"Fair Work Australia organised meetings a week before the hearings and Abigroup's hierarchy did not even turn up," she said.

"They can request us to do this - but it is basically not the union - it is the workers here who are sticking tight until they get some equity and justice."

Ms Clarke said the site had no union-based industrial picket line for workers to cross.

"This is actually organised by the workers themselves. It is not organised by other people or whatever," she said.

"Because, as you know, there have been injunctions against our organisations and our representatives and they can't be here.

"So we just turn up every day until we get the EBA signed."

Abigroup was urged by Federal Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten a week ago to re-enter negotiations with unions with an independent facilitator.

However Mr Shorten also criticised the unions, his spokesman said.

"The minister considers this industrial action unacceptable. The minister has made the point consistently that there is no place for unlawful activity in the workplace," he said.

"The minister believes the CFMEU should comply with the orders of Fair Work Australia.

"In addition, the minister contacted both parties last week urging them to sit down to resolve the matter. We understand there have been at least two meetings this week.

"The fact the CEO of Abigroup and other senior executives were stood aside earlier in the week has been an added complication to this matter."