Thursday, 29 May 2014
Newcastle Electorate: Job Security
I rise today to voice my serious concern for the jobs of today and the jobs of the future in my electorate of Newcastle. It is a time when we are seeing job after job go out the door as industry tries to adjust to new technologies and changing global circumstances, and this government is doing nothing about it. Businesses are closing, services are being centralised and public sector cuts are hitting hard. It is not just one or two jobs here and there disappearing through natural attrition and efficiencies. It is tens, sometimes hundreds, of jobs disappearing overnight. Today we have confirmation of another 25 jobs that will go, with QantasLink ground handlers at Newcastle Airport out of work by the end of next month. This is in addition to the jobs lost locally in recent times through cuts and closures at Brindabella Airlines, Arrium, Downer EDI, the Hunter TAFE, Pacific National, Sensis, WesTrac, Bradken and UGL, to name just a few.
As the Leader of the Opposition has said in the past, we do not blame this government for every single job loss. But we will always hold them to account for having no plan for future jobs. This is a government that, before the election, said they would create one million jobs within five years of coming to office. Here we are, eight months after the election, and we still see no plan for how these jobs will be created. We wait in anticipation for their masterstroke—the plan that will outline how they will stimulate employment and support industry transition. We thought we might see it in their budget: structural reform to create new jobs and some support for existing jobs at risk.
Sadly, our anticipation was unwarranted. What this budget showed, was that we truly have a government with no plans for jobs. They have no plan to support the jobs of today and no plan for the jobs of the future. They have made that clear. If you are unemployed, particularly if you are under 30, you are on your own. If you are still studying or planning to study, you are going to be paying for it for a very long time. If you are a public servant, we do not want you, we do not need you, find work elsewhere. And if school is not for you, your alternative pathways for education and training are on the way out, and support to help find work just will not be there anymore.
This government's approach is for everyone to fend for themselves. In recent decades, Newcastle has been the beneficiary of a decentralised government agency approach, with the ATO and CSIRO both relocating to our city and becoming major employers in our region. Both agencies have, however, been savagely hit in this budget with the ATO set to lose up to 3,000 employees nation-wide and CSIRO losing more than $100 million of funding with up to 1,000 jobs in danger.
While we do not know the direct effects to Newcastle yet, we know that their future is uncertain under this budget of cruel cuts and twisted priorities. Family-owned shipbuilder Forgacs, one of Newcastle's largest employers, has warned that they will have to close their Carrington and Tomago shipyards within eighteen months, laying off more than 900 highly skilled tradesmen and women, unless the federal government expedites decisions on future naval shipbuilding projects. I have met with Forgacs management team and have taken both the Leader of the Opposition and the Shadow Defence Minister to the Tomago shipyard to meet with the men and women building Australia's air warfare destroyers. They are an employer that does not want to give up, even when in danger of closing, as they still employ more than 80 apprentices and continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on training every month.
Yet, this may be all to no avail. The last two Defence white papers clearly mapped out Australia's need for more than 40 new ships. But the Abbott Liberal Government has not lifted a finger to help secure Australia's shipbuilding industry since winning the election more than eight months ago. The Defence Minister claims he has a plan to bridge the so-called Valley of Death for our Defence manufacturers, but there was not a single word about it in the budget.
Forgacs and their shipbuilding counterparts across the country need action now. Newcastle and the nation deserve better than what this government is giving us. We need a plan for the future. We need a plan for jobs and we need a plan for industry.
There is a seedy underbelly in the contract labour hire industry in this country. It is unfairly damaging the reputation of our agriculture industry and our tourism centres. Let me say from the outset that the majority of businesses do the right thing. They uphold the law and Australia's sense of a fair go. My speech here, in this place today, is not directed at those people.
In my electorate of Hinkler, it is a widely known fact that labour contractors, who act as middle men in the horticulture sector, are exploiting workers and local growers. To a small extent, the problem has always existed. But it has escalated in recent years. Many growers prefer to use contract labour hire, rather than recruit seasonal workers themselves. It reduces the regulatory burden on their business. Contractors charge growers a margin of about five to 10 per cent on top of wages and superannuation. The contractors pay the workers the bare minimum or cash, and then keep the superannuation for themselves. It can take months for the contractors to pay their workers. By then, many of the workers have moved on. They could not be bothered to fight it or do not know their rights, so the contractor never has to pay them.
The contractors employ people already in Australia on 417 working holiday visas and student visas. Some even bring foreign workers into Australia illegally, and threaten to report them to authorities if they do not comply with their every demand. Contractors are demanding large sums of cash in exchange for signing off on the 88 days of specified work that 417 visa holders are required to do to get a second year in Australia. The contractors also charge the workers for accommodation and transport. They are staying in overcrowded private residential properties that do not meet fire and safety standards.
The Bundaberg region has endured two major floods in three years, and is now in the midst of one the worst droughts on record. In tough seasons, growers struggle to pay their bills on time. Some contractors are on selling the debts to other contractors. This can result in contractors 'owning' growers, and influencing their business operations.
In November 2012, the Bundaberg News Mail reported that two Turkish labour contractors appeared in the Bundaberg Magistrates Court accused of kidnapping a Sharon farmer over an unpaid loan of $119,000. The trial had been set down for earlier this month. But the case was dismissed when the complainant failed to show up. Unfortunately the nightmare for growers does not end at being intimidated and fearing for their personal safety. Under current legislation, growers can be prosecuted for crimes committed by contractors. Labour contractors are masters at 'phoenixing', where a business collapses, only to rise from the ashes under a new name, without debt and trouble-free. In many cases, investigators cannot locate the contractor so they go after the grower. I agree that growers who have been complicit should be fined, and in some cases jailed. But it should certainly not be the case for growers who have engaged contractors in good faith.
This problem is not confined to my electorate. In Warwick late last year, newspaper reports indicated 60 backpackers were owed close to $200,000 by a Korean labour contractor. In April this year there were reports 417 visa holders in Gippsland were being forced to work 30 hours for free before the contractor would sign off on their 88 days of specified work. The problem we have in Australia is that the issue crosses so many jurisdictions—local, state and federal government; immigration, taxation, Fair Work, agriculture, police, fire, health and safety, and tourism. I recently met with a senior investigator from Fair Work. Since October 2013, the Fair Work Ombudsman has been making surprise visits to farms throughout Australia to check seasonal workers are being paid their full entitlements. In the two years before the program had even started, the Fair Work Ombudsman investigated about 230 complaints in the fruit-picking sector nationally, recovering $80,000 for 107 workers.
I must congratulate the Bundaberg Regional Council and the other local authorities for the work they are doing to crack down on illegal hostels and overcrowding. State member for Burnett, Stephen Bennett, has been particularly vocal about the issue. In February I hosted The Nationals Party Room in Bundaberg, where members and senators heard about these labour issues from Bundaberg Fruit and Vegetable Growers executive officer, Peter Hockings. Peter's advocacy on this issue is to be commended.
Together with Queensland Senator Barry O'Sullivan, I will next month host a small summit, bringing together representatives from the horticulture industry and the relevant state and federal ministers' offices. Senator O'Sullivan is a strong advocate for regional Australia and I look forward to working closely with him to get some action on this issue. The exploitation of workers and growers by contractors is detrimental to the economy. Not only does it disadvantage growers and contractors who do the right thing, but it reduces employment opportunities for those with permission to work in Australia. This flows through to our tourism sector due to lower occupancy rates in hostels and fewer backpackers visiting the Wide Bay Burnett region.
My region needs strong tourism and horticulture sectors now, more than ever.
Federation Chamber adjourned at 13:03