Regulator and unions are accusing each other of politically motivated intimidation over Fair Work Act prosecutions in Australia.
Fifty-two construction workers who walked off an Esso gas processing site in the Australian state of Victoria last year are now facing fines of A$10,800 ($7,800) for breaching the Fair Work Act.
The action is being brought by the Fair Work Building and Construction (FWBC), a federal agency established by the 2012 Fair Work (Building Industry) Act to enforce industrial relations law.
You are a f****** idiot, you’re an embarrassment, you’re pathetic. You’re all for the builder, nothing for the worker– Mr Tadic’s apparent words to an FWBC inspectpr
According to the FWBC, 45 workers downed tools on 12 February 2015 after the dismissal of a union health and safety representative, and 50 failed to arrive at work the next day. After a year’s investigation 52 of those involved were served with notices of the fine at their homes over the past weekend.
The Australian Workers Union (AWU) is accusing the FWBC of using its powers to "terrorise and intimidate" the 52.
Scott McDine (pictured), the AWU’s national secretary, claimed the agency was engaged in a "campaign of industrial terrorism", using its powers to intimidate workers.
"Imagine looking forward to spending a peaceful Saturday with your family after a hard week on site and being blindsided by the threat of a $10,800 fine," he said. "Bear in mind here that there are no allegations of violence or abuse."
But Nigel Hadgkiss, the director of the federal agency, likened the workers’ action to "vigilatism" and said workers with grievances should always use the legitimate options open to them.
He added: "The dismissed worker could have gone to the Fair Work Commission and had the circumstances of his dismissal fully explored. Instead, workers took it upon themselves to disrupt the construction of a significant piece of Victorian infrastructure."
The plant, which is on the coast of Victoria about 100km east of Melbourne, will process gas for the $4.5bn offshore Kipper Tuna Turrum project.
Imagine looking forward to spending a peaceful Saturday with your family after a hard week on site and being blindsided by the threat of a $10,800 fine– Scott McDine, AWU national secretary
The FWBC became involved in another controversy after it began court action to fine a union official A$10,800 for insulting a safety inspector after he refused to close down a police station project in Castlemaine, Victoria, in June 2014.
FWBC is alleging that Alex Tadic, an official from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), refused to comply with directions from a government inspector on a construction site and became "rude, angry and aggressive" when the inspector did not comply with his demands to shut the site down.
The agency further alleges Mr Tadic engaged in conduct that had an adverse effect on the inspector’s ability to undertake the inspection of the site. FWBC claims Mr Tadic said to the inspector: "You are a f****** idiot, you’re an embarrassment, you’re pathetic. You’re all for the builder, nothing for the worker".
Another controversial aspect of the case is the FWBC’s use of its powers of coercion to force the inspector to give evidence against Mr Tadic. Both men were on the site to investigate possible breaches of occupational health and safety.
Meanwhile, a court in Sydney has thrown out a charge of intimidation brought against another CFMEU official by the FWBC.
The official, Michael Greenfield, was charged with intimidating a Fair Work building inspector. The charge related to a 2014 incident at the Barangaroo construction site in Sydney that was detailed in evidence before a Royal Commission.
Mr Greenfield was charged in October 2015 and appeared in Sydney’s Downing Centre Local Court on Monday, where the charge of intimidating a commonwealth public official was dismissed.