Malcolm Roberts Exposes Wage Theft Scandal in Coal Industry

One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts has raised the alarm about an alleged wage theft scandal affecting workers in Australia’s coal industry, writes Des Houghton.

Federal parliament was told this week that 5000 casual coalminers in Queensland and NSW each lost up to $40,000 a year in what may be Australia’s biggest wage theft scandal stretching back decades.

One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts accused major unions of wrongdoing and the Fair Work Commission of improperly endorsing a workplace agreement that disadvantaged workers.

He criticised the Construction, Forestry and Maritime Employees Union, the CFMEU, and its offshoot, the Mining and Energy Union, the MEU.

At Senate Estimates hearings in Canberra, Roberts referred to “collusion” by the CFMEU, and to the “criminal involvement of some CFMEU Mining and Energy Union officials who facilitated, enabled and approved illegal enterprise agreements.”

At the second Estimates session in Canberra, Roberts challenged Queensland Labor senator Murray Watt, appearing for Industrial Relations Minister Tony Burke, to say whether the ALP had a conflict of interest for receiving CFMEU funds.

Roberts: “Are you unavoidably conflicted on this matter because of the many millions of dollars from the CFMEU paid to your Labor Party?”

“No,” said Watt.

Roberts also asked Watt whether he had a possible conflict of interest concerning a mysterious payment of $48m to the CFMEU over two years by Abelshore, which Parliament heard was a wholly owned subsidiary of Glencore.

“I wasn’t even aware of that,” Watt said.

He added: “I have no idea what you are talking about.”

A journalist in Glencore’s media division told me she had not heard of Abelshore either. Glencore did not respond to questions.

Earlier, in a speech in the Senate, Roberts attacked the Labor Party and described the government’s Fair Work (Closing Loopholes) Bill as a “sham”.

He said wage theft from miners in the black coal industry in central Queensland and the Hunter Valley was an “absolute scandal” going back many years.

“The Labor government is giving more power to union bosses, which is putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. Union bosses are the ones that have been ripping off workers, and the government regulator, the Fair Work Commission, has endorsed it,’’ Roberts told the House.

Roberts, 69, who was born in India, speaks with a deep knowledge of the industry. He is a former coal face miner who arrived in the Senate armed with a University of Queensland honours degree in Mechanical Engineering and an MBA from the University of Chicago. He rose to become a mine manager, and later the general manager of a mining company.

“An independent report details the largest wage theft scandal Australia has ever seen,” he told Parliament.

He said he had been digging into the scandal for five years and had commissioned an independent study.

“Coalmine workers have each had tens of thousands of dollars stolen from them every year,” he told the House.

“Labour hire companies, union bosses and governments have been covering it up for a decade or more.

“The culprits are labour hire companies supplying casual workers to some Central Queensland and Hunter Valley coal mines. The CFMEU enabled and supported the wage theft. The Fair Work Commission signed off anendorsed the enterprise agreements, enabling the wage theft.’’

Workers doing identical jobs were paid different amounts because of improper award variations.

He told the House that One Nation commissioned an independent, expert study that found casual coalminers are routinely “shafted” to the tune of “around $33,000 every year”. Later at an Estimates hearing, he said the figure may be closer to $40,000 a year.

Under questioning from Roberts at Estimates, Watt said he was unaware the Independent Workers Union of Australia had lodged three claims for backpay with the Fair Work Ombudsman.

The union is not affiliated with the ALP. It represents two miners from Queensland and one from NSW.

Sam Stephens, 56, who now works in the agricultural industry, said he was underpaid $119,000 over five years.

Two miners who still work in the industry are reluctant to give their names for publication. One said he was owed $104,473 for underpayments stretching back eight years.

Another says he is owed $53,660 in underpayments since 2016.

“It’s an outrage that these blokes were underpaid,” said IWU secretary Sarah Tuohey.

The 46-year-old mother of three said her union was just a year old and already had 1085 members including independent workers like drivers, tradies, miners, retail workers.

Tuohey, a former supermarket worker, said another 35 casual coalminers had asked to join her union this week because the workforce was abuzz with stories of underpayments aired by Senator Roberts.

“We expect our members to be paid correctly and not ripped off,” said Tuohey.

“Our aim is to get some money back. Our first port of call will be the Fair Work Ombudsman, but we wont stop there,”

Roberts continued to taunt Watt during the Canberra hearings.

“Can workers rely on the Fair Work Commission that approved illegal enterprise agreements,” he asked Watt.

Watt said workers could rely on the Fair Work Commission now that Labor has “restored some balance."

Murray Furlong, general manager of the Fair Work Commission, told the hearing he was “broadly aware” of the stolen wages allegations. He said it was hard to discuss the case “in the abstract” and agreed to take questions on notice.

Watt suggested Roberts was chasing a conspiracy theory. He said a Labor government had “fixed the laws and delivered secure jobs and better pay.”

Roberts said he was focused on the Black Coal Mining Industry Award.

“This is systemic wage theft resulting from collusion between labour hire companies—including major foreign multinationals – the CFMEU and the Fair Work Commission,” he told Parliament.

“Under that award, it’s illegal for mine employers to have casual employees. Yet, if casuals were legal, everyone in Australia knows that the employer would have to pay casuals 25 per cent more than the award full-time rate, as a 25 percent casual loading for loss of basic entitlements like leave, sick leave, and others.

“While the award prohibits casuals, labour hire companies – with the CFMEU – created enterprise agreements to employ casuals without any loading.

“The CFMEU negotiated, approved or sought to become a party to these agreements.”

Labor’s “closing loopholes” Bill gave union bosses more power but didn’t solve underpayments.

“Some casuals were paid even less than the full-time award through technical legal trickery,” he said.

“All parties claim these agreements are legal, yet everyone knows a casual gets a 25 percent loading on the hourly rate of a full-time worker.

“Paying them any less is wage theft.’’

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  • One Nation
    published this page in News 2024-06-20 14:12:46 +1000