Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Building union rocked by claims of corrupt dealing with crime figures in exchange for construction contracts

Union officials have formed corrupt relationships with organised crime figures, receiving kickbacks in exchange for arranging lucrative contracts in the construction industry.

A joint investigation by ABC's 7.30 program and Fairfax Media has discovered that bribery, extortion and threats of violence are used to cement the influence of crime figures on Australia's construction sites.

Companies connected to major crime figures have won contracts on private and government projects, including Victoria's desalination plant and the Barangaroo development in Sydney.

Evidence including covertly recorded conversations, bank records, police intelligence files and whistleblower accounts implicate a number of senior members of the influential Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) in New South Wales and Victoria in corruption.

In a secretly recorded conversation, one building industry figure tells a colleague that he has given cash bribes and other inducements to several members of the union's Victorian hierarchy, along with lower-level union shop stewards.

Labour hire companies have paid crime figures and union officials to obtain contracts for major building projects, even though some of those companies have become infamous for ripping off workers and leaving them without their entitlements.

The CFMEU is able to pressure large builders to use certain contractors - including labour hire companies - by wielding the stick of costly industrial action and holding out the carrot of peace on building sites.

A Victorian CFMEU official, Danny Berardi, resigned immediately after Fairfax and 7.30 supplied evidence that he got at least two companies to help renovate his properties for free in return for getting them work on Melbourne construction sites.

Investigation into influence of Sydney crime figure

The CFMEU's national executive has also launched an internal investigation into the influence of Sydney crime figure George Alex in the union's NSW arm after a whistleblower questioned his relationship with senior union officials.

Mr Alex - a convicted criminal with links to Comancheros bikies, murderers and drug traffickers - runs a labour hire company that has landed lucrative contracts in NSW and Victoria, including the Barangaroo development.

It has been alleged that union figures helped Mr Alex obtain those contracts, despite the fact he has become notorious for running phoenix companies, which go bust then resurface under a different name. As a result, some workers have been left without their entitlements.

Late last year, Mr Alex's companies owed more than $1 million in workers' benefits and unpaid taxes in NSW and Victoria. The NSW CFMEU recently recovered $250,000 from Mr Alex.

In Victoria, Mr Alex employed Melbourne underworld figure Mick Gatto to negotiate with the unions and obtain work for his labour hire companies, Active and United.

Union chief concerned about claims of criminality

In separate statements to 7.30 and Fairfax Media, Victorian secretary John Setka and his NSW counterpart, Brian Parker, said the union played no part in deciding whether particular labour hire companies got contracts on construction projects.

"The union is not in a position to check the property, or other interests or connections of employers and managers of companies," Mr Parker said.

"The union might have a view about a contractor and their history of compliance, but ultimately, whether a subcontractor wins work is up to the builders who contract with them."

Mr Parker also said he had a "professional" relationship with Mr Alex, but no social relationship, and that he had not sought work for Active Labour Hire at Barangaroo.

CFMEU national secretary Dave Noonan said he was "deeply concerned about any criminal activity in the industry", and urged anyone with evidence of criminality in the industry to report it to police.

"We will not tolerate corruption within the union," he told ABC News Breakfast.

"Construction workers are entitled and are proud of the fact we have had a strong and effective union in the CFMEU. Any individuals that have engaged in corrupt activity will not be continuing their employment with the union. They will be sacked."

Mr Noonan said he "absolutely refuted" suggestions that the union had been inactive in fighting corruption.

"Our policies are very clear on probity and corruption and on all of these matters, and we have dealt with them in the past," he said.

"The CFMEU is not the corporate regulator to approve which individuals and which companies can and cannot operate in the industry, nor are we the body that can investigate criminal matters. These are issues for ASIC and the police force and we have consistently called on them to do their job."

'Field left open for corrupt officials'

Nigel Hadgkiss, the director of the Fair Work Building and Construction Commission, has revealed law enforcement agencies have recently obtained evidence about "the payment of bribes to senior union officials" in Victoria.

However, he said that in the past, police had not acted on evidence of corruption in the building industry, leaving the field open for criminals and corrupt officials. He described this as "very frustrating".

History of corruption

Claims of corruption in the construction industry are nothing new. In 2003 the Cole Royal Commission found:

    Widespread use of inappropriate payments in the industry

   Threatening and intimidatory behaviour

    Widespread requirements to employ union-nominated persons in critical positions on building projects

    Unlawful strikes and threats of unlawful strikes
In 2010, intelligence gathered by a Victoria Police and Australian Crime Commission drugs investigation revealed that Mr Gatto and his crane company business partner, Matt Tomas, were allegedly involved in "criminal activity in the building industry and narcotics" and have close connections to "the Hells Angels, the CFMEU and drug importers".

It has been alleged that two Victoria labour hire firms, KPI and MC Labour, have hired criminal figures and friends and relatives of union officials in return for help getting contracts on building projects, including the massive desalination plant in Gippsland.

A number of outlaw motorcycle gang members and other people linked with them were given jobs at the plant.

A KPI staff list sent to a major contractor at the Victorian government-funded Springvale Road overpass project reveals it is employing the relatives of two CFMEU shop stewards, two outlaw bikie figures and several relatives of Mr Gatto.

The labour hire companies sought favour with union officials by supplying gifts such as AFL grand final tickets, Formula One grand prix tickets, and trips to Crown casino's high-end Mahogany Room.
Government, builders call for re-establishment of ABCC

The Federal Government says the claims of widespread corruption and criminal activity by union officials strengthen the Government's case for re-establishing the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

"Any argument against the re-establishment of the ABCC has just disappeared out the window," Senator Abetz said this morning.

"Bill Shorten and Labor need to acknowledge that there is corruption and there is a need for the ABCC."

Master Builders Association chief executive Wilhelm Harnisch says the allegations are unnacceptable and prove that the ABCC needs to be restored

"It was exactly these sorts of allegations that led to the establishment of the Cole Royal Commission," he said.

"These fresh allegations of corruption and criminality are totally outside the community's expectations of how normal people should behave and there must be a full inquiry to get to the truth."

Mr Harnisch says the allegations point to a culture of intimadation and coercion created by the building unions.

"These allegations also illustrate how the behaviour of building unions holds back the productivity of the construction sector to the detriment of the Australian community," he said.

Lend Lease chief executive Steve McCann told the ABC they have a "zero tolerance approach" to corrupt or fraudlent behaviour in the industry.


Federal government to seek independent review of the health impact of wind farms

The federal government will press ahead with "an independent program" to study the supposed impact on health of wind farms as it emerged a report on the issue has been handed to government but withheld from public release.

Activists, some linked to climate change sceptic groups, say people living near wind farms suffer sleep disturbance and other health effects from low-frequency noise and infrasound, with illnesses dubbed ''wind turbine syndrome'', ''vibro-acoustic disease'' and ''visceral vibratory vestibular disturbance''.

Various international and Australian studies have cast doubt on the sicknesses and the National Health and Medical Research Council began its review of evidence about the effects of wind farms for the government in September 2012. Its findings have been sent to the ministers of health, industry and environment and will be released publicly "in coming months", a council spokeswoman said

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said this month that research should be refreshed "from time to time" to consider whether there were "new facts that impact on old judgments".

"It is some years since the NHMRC last looked at this issue. Why not do it again?" he said.

A spokesman for Mr Abbott declined to clarify whether the Prime Minister knew of the council's latest study when calling for the council to reopen the issue.

Competing concerns

A "rapid review" of the evidence by the council in 2010 found "renewable energy generation is associated with few adverse health effects compared with the well-documented health burdens of polluting forms of electricity generation". About three-quarters of eastern Australia's power comes from coal.

Simon Chapman, a professor of public health at Sydney University, said Mr Abbott appeared to have been swayed by a tiny group of anti-windfarm campaigners, such as the Waubra Foundation, in calling for another study even before the survey of scientific literature is released.

"We all need to be concerned about whether he’s being influenced by little more than a cult,” Professor Chapman said, adding that research to date has failed to link wind farms under current noise guidelines with ill-health.

Sarah Laurie, chief executive of the Waubra Foundation, supports the extra study. “Research and data if done properly is what enables proper regulation,” Ms Laurie said.

The NHMRC study should not only look at noise impacts from wind farms but also similar effects from coal seam gas and open-cut coal mining operations, she added.

The wind industry is concerned the prospect of a new study is the latest sign governments are turning against renewable energy. Mr Abbott, other coalition figures and his senior business advisor Maurice Newman have lately blamed the Renewable Energy Target for pushing up power prices.

The goal, now set at generating 20 per cent of electricity from renewable sources by 2020, will be reviewed this year. Industry sources say the environment and industry ministries are resisting efforts to have the Productivity Commission - expected to take a hardline against the RET - conduct the review.


Work-for-the-dole could be expanded into aged care homes, Federal Government says

Newstart recipients forced to work for their welfare payments could be asked to volunteer in aged care facilities as part of a reinvigorated work-for-the-dole scheme.

The Federal Government wants to make good on its election commitment to reinstate the Howard-era program, but says much of the detail is still to be worked out, including when the scheme will restart.

Dole recipients would be asked to take part in civic maintenance, cleaning streets and parks, as occurred in the scheme's first inception.

Assistant Minister for Employment Luke Hartsuyker says it is also possible welfare recipients could work in aged care facilities, doing maintenance work such as gardening and painting.

"We would not intend that work-for-the-dole participants would be involved in the care of patients, but perhaps be involved in work that the facility could not otherwise do," he told the ABC's AM program.

"We'll be releasing the implementation for work for the dole in due course.

"There is not a start date locked in at this point in time."

The Government says its is focused on ensuring that the work-for-the-dole scheme does not remove incentives for paid work, and wants to place job seekers with not-for-profit organisations.

Mr Hartsuyker denied it would create a regulatory burden for charities wanting to engage in the program.

"We want to implement this program in a measured and a methodical way," he said.

Opposition demands details of work-for-the-dole scheme

Labor's employment spokesman Brendan O'Connor says making people on the dole work for their welfare takes them away from time they could spend finding a job.

"If you've been a long-term employee who's just been retrenched, the last thing you need is work experience, you may need skill acquisition," Mr O'Connor said.

Mr O'Connor has also called on the Government to provide more details about its plans.

"How much money is going to be dedicated to these initiatives? What engagement do they have with future employers who might want to employ people in this arrangement?" Mr O'Connor said.

"What are the workers' compensation arrangements? What is the public liability arrangements?

"There are so many questions, fewer answers than questions so far."

The Government says it is still working on the program for people on unemployment benefits and cannot say how much it will cost.


Brisbane tree pruning ban cut down by conservative admin.

A two-decade ban on Brisbane residents cutting trees on their properties has officially been lifted.

Amid much controversy, Lord Mayor Graham Quirk announced last year residents would be able to maintain the trees on their properties and nature strips that had previously been protected by local laws.

The amendment to Brisbane's Natural Assets Local Law was prompted by last year's Australia Day storm, when the council received more than 10,000 reports of damaged trees and spent weeks cleaning up.

Not only would the amendment slash red tape, Cr Quirk said, it would enable residents to regain responsibility for their own safety.

“The changes make it easier for affected property owners to understand what vegetation is protected, which works do not require a permit and which works do require a permit,” Cr Quirk said.

“This is a great result which achieves the right balance between respecting the environment and private property rights.”

Under the new amendment, residents can apply for long-term permits to prune street trees, eliminating the previous single validity permit requirement.

The number of categories of protected vegetation has been reduced from 11 to four.

All vegetation currently protected under the existing NALL will remain valid and the council will continue to require that any protected trees which are removed be offset with new ones.

Council officers will also have the power to issue on-the-spot fines to those who don't comply.

In leading the formal adoption of the amendment in October, Cr Quirk said there were nearly 600,000 street trees in Brisbane.

At the time, Opposition Leader Milton Dick raised concerns council's tree maintenance budget had been slashed.

"They have cut back the amount of tree trimmers across the city ... and as a result they have sent it out to the ratepayers to cut their trees themselves," he said.

However, Cr Quirk rejected the claim.  He said council's vegetation maintenance resources had been reallocated from trimming trees to cleaning up felled trees, removing debris from parks and streets and cleaning up the city's suburbs following last year's Australia Day storm event.

The NALL amendment came into effect on Monday.


1 comment:

Paul said...

"..could be asked to volunteer in aged care facilities as part of a reinvigorated work-for-the-dole scheme."

They have enough to trouble with many of the barely-skilled workers they use now. The cost of doing this properly may well outweigh any benefit gained.