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Sep 16 2010

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AU: Union to use courts to end bullying

By Ben Schneiders, The Sydney Morning Herald

Employers would be forced by the courts to move bullies away from their victims under an aggressive industrial strategy to be rolled out across Victoria and then Australia by a large blue-collar union.

The unique claim – which will target employers in the forestry and furniture sectors – is in response to a spate of recent bullying cases, in particular that of Sunbury labourer Dean Hutchinson.

The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union’s forestry and furnishing products division will demand there be a clause in future agreements that ensures companies act quickly on complaints in a ”fair, proper, impartial investigation”.

The push takes advantage of new sections of the Fair Work Act that allow for the use of court injunctions to ensure a victim, or the bully, is moved to a different part of the workplace.

The union’s state and assistant national secretary Leo Skourdoumbis said the ”groundbreaking” strategy ”would become a standard clause in our agreements”. He said companies that the union was negotiating with for the first time would be ”hit with the clause”, while those where the union already had coverage would face the claim when new enterprise agreements were negotiated.

The draft clause, to be endorsed by the union’s executive today, will also demand that employers provide ”adequate support” to victims, keep records of meetings, and develop anti-bullying policy and training.

Mr Skourdoumbis said the union had received an ”avalanche” of complaints about bullying after The Age reported the case of Mr Hutchinson, a member of the CFMEU, who alleged horrific abuse by his employer, Sunbury Wall Frames & Trusses, and will receive a confidential payout and public apology.

University of Adelaide law professor Andrew Stewart said the proposed clause provided a new avenue for the union that was in addition to any common law rights or rights under occupational health and safety laws. He said it would place employers in a difficult position.

”They can hardly say that they support bullying, they can hardly deny dealing with bullying allegations,” he said. ”[But] this makes them directly liable as an organisation in a way that may not have been the case before.”

He said the push took advantage of the Fair Work Act, which allowed for court injunctions when part of an agreement was in breach. ”Prior to the Fair Work Act you couldn’t go to court to get an injunction.”

Professor Stewart said bullying cases were often tricky and the issue could become complicated when an employee accused of misconduct then alleges bullying and harassment.

Some other unions, including the Community and Public Sector Union, have references to bullying in agreements but they tend to refer to existing company policies and are far less binding.

Mr Skourdoumbis said WorkSafe Victoria and the Fair Work Ombudsman had not done enough about bullying, with cases often ”put into the too-hard basket”.


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