Builders are calling on the workplace umpire to intervene over the CFMEU’s demand for industry contractors to pay for thousands of their employees to attend a union rally over silica dust.
The Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union has invoked agreement clauses to NSW employers for paid workforce “communication meetings” of up to four hours so employees can attend the mass protest on Thursday morning.
However, the Master Builders Association accuses the union of illegal misrepresentations and wants the Fair Work Ombudsman to investigate and issue an urgent advisory that workers could face “hefty financial penalties” if they attend the rally.
In a circular to members, the MBA NSW said based on legal advice employers were not obligated to release employees to attend the rally and that workers who attended without authorisation could be engaging in unlawful industrial action.
“It is unlawful under the Fair Work Act for an employer to pay an employee for periods of unlawful industrial action,” the circular said.
“Breaching that provision attracts a maximum fine of $18,780.”
CFMEU national secretary Zach Smith accused Master Builders NSW of “siding with evil foreign-owned corporations profiting from the deaths of Australian workers”.
“They are playing silly word games while tradies die slow and painful deaths from silicosis and other dust diseases,” he said.
“All I can say to the leadership of MBA NSW is good luck scrubbing the blood off your hands – no one will forget this.
“Trying to dock the wages of workers standing alongside colleagues on engineered-stone death row is disgusting.”
Construction workers will start marching from Belmore Park to state parliament in Sydney at 8.30am. Mr Smith, NSW secretary Darren Greenfield, Victorian secretary John Setka, Queensland secretary Michael Ravbar and West Australian secretary Mick Buchan will be speaking to the crowd about a ban on silica dust.
Mr Greenfield has told employers the union is holding a “consultation meeting” on Thursday at 7am at Belmore Park.
Under the CFMEU’s pattern deal, communication meetings are “a forum for discussion and communication of issues that affect employees”. The meetings should be conducted in “a formal manner with an agenda, minutes and signed attendance register”.
The MBA argues a union rally does not provide a forum for discussion of issues that affect the specific employees and cannot legitimately be conducted “in a formal manner”.
It wants the FWO to adopt a similar approach to union rallies as the now abolished Australian Building and Construction Commission by issuing an industry advisory that “attendance by an employee at the rally without the authorisation or agreement of their employer will be unlawful, leaving the employee exposed to hefty financial penalties”.
“The ABCC regularly issued such industry advice in relation to union rallies, and we believe it would be worthwhile for the FWO to adopt a similar approach,” the MBA told new ombudsman Anna Booth in a letter.
An FWO spokesman said that its website contained information about attending protests or rallies during work time, including employee and employers’ rights and protections in relation to attendance.
The website says employers can’t unreasonably refuse annual leave to attend protests but also that employees who stop work without their employer’s approval may be participating in unprotected industrial action and could be subject to disciplinary action.
“As the workplace tribunal, the Fair Work Commission has jurisdiction to deal with disputes about the interpretation of enterprise agreement terms,” the spokesman said.
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