Thursday, 12 November 2020
Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2020-2021; Consideration in Detail
I find the minister's comments extraordinary, given what is happening with coronavirus. It is mutating in Denmark. Coronavirus is transferring from minks. They are now worried that we will have a third wave of a different strain. Equally, we had the Victorian outbreak and the worst ever outbreak of avian flu, and the minister just dismisses the concerns that are being raised by our shadow minister in relation to biosecurity. The coronavirus is infecting humans. We don't know the risk this mutation overseas will pose to Australians. We also now have an outbreak in the poultry industry in Victoria which is the worst outbreak we have ever seen. The fact that the minister is flippantly dismissing it and saying it's somebody else's job is really quite alarming.
My questions today are actually about workforce and this government's failure to address the workforce issues. The borders were shut in March, and Ernst & Young said, through their own research, that there is a shortfall of at least 26,000 workers required for fruit and vegetable picking. That's what our farmers are telling us, that's what we know and that's what's been reported over and over. The minister claims that 22,000 workers are on their way. I have a series of questions in relation to this claim. First of all, why has it taken so long? We knew in March that this would be an issue. Here we are in November and we're still talking about 22,000 workers being on their way. When will they arrive? That is the first question. Why is it taking so long? Why has it taken your department so long to organise this when we knew the borders had been closed? Minister, where are the workers coming from? Do you agree with the member for Nicholls that we should bring them from Asia, where coronavirus is rampant? Are we going to bring backpackers from Asia to this country to work on the farms?
How much will it cost these workers to be here?
I just want to highlight some of the concerns that are being raised. This is another question for the minister. Are the few workers who have come from the Pacific the workers who were going to come anyway, and now they just have to bear the extra costs? In one case, $1,500 per person was charged to workers for chartered flights. Those workers, when they finish their quarantine and start working, will essentially be working for free to pay back their flight costs. Minister, is this fair? These guest workers who come here to help our farm workers out are having to work for free to pay for their flight costs. Are the workers who are quarantining on an Emerald farm paying for their own quarantine? Will they be, again, essentially working for free on our farms to pay for quarantine costs? What has the department done to ensure that these workers are not being disadvantaged and ripped off?
That brings me to another issue, around health care and these workers. We have had the tragedy of people who are here on the Pacific Labour Scheme dying—being diagnosed with cancer and not getting the health care they require because of the insurance that they've got. There have been disputes with Bupa and people dying. These are guest workers. What are the minister and the department doing, through the labour hire scheme, to ensure any worker coming here has quality health care, is being protected and is not dying on Australian shores?
My next question goes to the alarming report that a business that was established, AgriAus, said: 'Okay, Australians, there's work on the farms. Let's recruit you and link you to the jobs.' There were 1,500 applications from Australians wanting to work on farms, yet they couldn't find one farm that would take them on. When the company dug a bit deeper and asked farmers why, they were told, 'Because they're lazy'—not that they'd interviewed any of these workers to see what their work history was—and 'We'd have to pay them.' Minister, do you endorse farmers saying, 'We don't want to hire Australians because we'd have to pay them'? Minister, how rampant is the underpayment of foreign workers? Is the reason why the farmers are not giving these 1,500 Australians a go the ugly secret in agriculture—that we bring foreign workers here who don't know what their rights are and they are exploited? Minister, what are you doing to ensure that there is labour market testing so that an Australian, if they want a job, can get a job in agriculture? Why is it still the culture of these farmers and your industry that, when it's being shut down because of the close of borders, Australians aren't getting jobs and they're still saying, 'We need to bring backpackers here from Asia instead of giving these Australians a go'? You say that your department is on top of this, that 22,000 workers are here. Why are you putting those foreign workers before Australian workers who want to have a go in agriculture?