I would like to thank the committee for providing the AMWU with the opportunity to give evidence in relation to this important legislation. The AMWU believes that these are bad laws and I would like to provide a brief historical example to illustrate why we have come to this opinion.
In 2001, James Hardie put $293 million into a trust fund designed to meet all future compensation claims for asbestos victims. They then moved the corporate headquarters to the Netherlands, taking an estimated $1.9 billion dollars in assets with them. They promised the Supreme Court in NSW that this money would be available, should the compensation fund that was established fall short.
However, in 2003, James Hardie severed links with their remaining Australian companies, cutting off any call on those funds now held in the Netherlands. Because Australia did not have the required treaty arrangements in place with the Netherlands, all the assets and incomes of the parent company were out of reach of James Hardie’s Australian victims, despite the assurances they gave to the court.
In early 2004, after years of campaigning by victims’ groups and the AMWU, the NSW government established the Jackson Inquiry to investigate James Hardie’s compensation fund. When the details of their conduct became public there was a public outcry.
A wave of national protests took place on 15 September 2004. Tens of thousands of workers across the country walked off the job and joined protests to demand that victims be treated with dignity and respect. In Sydney, workers from across the city left work and marched to the James Hardie shareholder briefing in Darling Harbour with the simple demand “Make James Hardie Pay”
The following week, the report of the Jackson Inquiry laid bare the malicious conduct of James Hardie executives and their cruel decision to short-change the compensation fund by between $1.5 and $2.24 billion dollars. Negotiations between James Hardie and the unions on how to ensure compensation was paid began the next week.
On 21 December, after a concerted campaign, James Hardie finally reached heads of agreement with the ACTU, Unions NSW, victims’ groups, represented by the tireless Bernie Banton, and the NSW Government.
We had secured uncapped compensation for victims of asbestos diseases and a commitment to contribute $4.5 billion into the compensation fund that was originally given only $293 million.
We achieved justice because unions and victims’ groups engaged in an escalating series of protests, work stoppages, work bans, boycotts, matches, investor activism and intense political lobbying.
It is beyond question that this campaign for sufferers of asbestos disease made Australia a better, safer and more just place. Many of the campaign activities which I have outlined to you today would now constitute illegal industrial activity.
Under this legislation, those of us who organised this campaign – a campaign that secured justice for people suffering from these horrific illnesses and untimely death – would be banned from the leadership of our union.
Under this legislation, our union, which stood up – not just for our members, but for their families and for victims across Australia – would be at risk of deregistration.
I know I speak for every AMWU member, delegate and official when I say that if personal bans and union deregistration was the price we needed to pay for the justice that we secured, we would pay it 100 times over.
If we were faced with the same choice again tomorrow, I have no doubt that we would do the same thing – and we would be right to do so.
But the legislation before you is even more insidious than that. It doesn’t just punish unions for fighting against corporate interests, it gives those same corporate interests even more tools to prevent us from winning our fights in the first place.
Given the billions of dollars that our successful campaign cost James Hardie, does anyone here think that they wouldn’t – as an interested party under the Act – seek to use these laws to have our officials removed from office during the campaign?
Does anyone think that a company that intentionally delayed legal proceedings to deny sufferers compensation before their illness finally took their lives wouldn’t seek to use every avenue of delay and bog unions and victims’ groups in endless vexatious and costly litigation to frustrate out ability to organise against them?
It is easy to say now that no judge would ban a delegate, prevent protest action or deregister a union because they were fighting for the rights of the sick and dying, but the fight was not always a popular one. We fought long and hard to get this issue onto the political agenda.
For a long time, the AMWU and victims’ groups fought a lonely fight against a well-resourced and ruthless opponent. With these new powers, the likes of James Hardie may well have been able to swamp this campaign before it gained the momentum and attention it needed to achieve success.
These laws are unjust. They go too far and give too many rights to employers to interfere with the work that we do to improve the lives of our members, their families and their communities.
It is lucky that the last James Hardie didn’t have these laws to prevent their victims from achieving justice.
Senators, you are the only ones who can prevent the next Jamie Hardie from using them.
I encourage you to reject the legislation.