Ewin Hannan, The Australian, February 14, 2017
Unions have warned South Australia’s volatile power sector faces industrial upheaval as the state’s electricity distribution network seeks to impose the Turnbull government’s contentious construction code on hundreds of workers.
SA Power Networks has angered unions by seeking to negotiate separate enterprise agreements for its 2000-strong workforce, insisting it would be unlikely to be eligible for an exemption from the Australian Building and Construction Commission’s new building code.
While its regulated business will be able to seek an exemption, the company said legal advice suggested its commercial arm, Construction and Maintenance Services, would have to comply with the code, meaning a raft of conditions enjoyed by 350 workers would have to be removed to get commonwealth work.
“That advice suggests we will be able to seek an exemption from the building code for our regulated network business, but would be unlikely to be successful in gaining an exemption for CaMS, which competes in the commercial infrastructure market for government and private-sector project work,’’ spokesman Paul Roberts said.
“The advice indicates that under the ABCC legislation, if it is not compliant with the code, CaMS would no longer be able to even tender for work that has any federal government funding and, to be compliant, there are more than 30 specific clauses that need to be amended, or in a few cases, removed from our enterprise agreement.”
Unions warned the move was the “first cab off the rank” by essential services providers and could be a precedent for employers attempting to apply the code across the energy industry.
Employment Minister Michaelia Cash said last night the company could apply to be exempt from the code.
“Building companies can very clearly be exempted from the code if they provide essential services, including for the supply of electricity,” she told The Australian. Under the code, the Australian Building and Construction Commission may exempt companies whose work involves the “provision of essential services related to supply of electricity”.
But Electrical Trades Union national policy officer Lance McCallum called on Senate crossbenchers to support amendments to the ABCC legislation to explicitly remove companies that provide essential services from the scope of the code.
“Without a mandatory building code exemption for essential services, the federal government risks throwing a lit match into the tinderbox that is South Australia’s electricity network,’’ Mr McCallum said. “The building code was designed for construction sites, not essential services such as electricity, yet workers at SA Power have been told this completely inappropriate industrial relations framework is set to be imposed on them.” He said South Australia’s electricity network had been free of serious industrial disputes for more than 10 years “yet all that good work is put at risk by an arrangement that could see rights, entitlements and other conditions stripped away from workers”.
Complying with the code could result in 36 clauses “covering everything from training to redundancy provisions” stripped from the agreement, he said.
“Without action, tens of thousands of workers who provide essential services could suddenly see their workplace agreements torn up, inevitably leading to industrial disputation and negative impacts for consumers,’’ he said. “We face the potential of a perverse situation where the building code has the exact opposite effect to its stated intention, creating industrial disputes where there was none.”
Mr Roberts said the business had a generally co-operative relationship with unions and “we are keen to ensure a smooth transition that will protect the future of our commercial business’’.
“Without a compliant enterprise agreement our commercial division will be shut out of tendering for federally funded projects.’’