House debates

Monday, 11 September 2023


Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023; Second Reading

3:22 pm

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Adelaide, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I'll start off by saying that exploiting another human being is wrong, and no-one in this place should say or think otherwise. This is the core of this bill. Exploitation thrives on vulnerability and inequality, and it's time that we stand up against it. Every person, no matter where they come from, deserves respect. When we look at migrant workers, we know that one in six recent migrants to Australia is paid less than the minimum wage. That's one in six. Despite working the same job and having the same experience, they get underpaid. There's no doubt about that. They're the facts.

Temporary visa holders make up four per cent of the workforce, but, when you look at all litigation initiated for breaching the Fair Work Act in the 2021-22 year, they make up 26 per cent—over a quarter. So you have to ask yourself: is this the Australia that we aspire to be, a nation that allows a significant portion of its workforce to be exploited, underpaid and denied their basic rights? The answer is unequivocally no. This is not okay. I know that it's not all employers—the majority do the right thing—but, when you see that 26 per cent of all litigation initiated in breaching the Fair Work Act involved migrants, then we know there's something terribly wrong. That's what this bill is all about: fixing that wrong, making sure that people are paid fairly and aren't underpaid, and ensuring that this big number of underpaid people is basically stopped. A nation that allows a significant proportion of its workforce to be exploited, underpaid and denied basic rights—as I said, the answer should be unequivocally no.

In my electorate of Adelaide I've met many hardworking individuals who seek nothing more than what they rightly deserve. They don't ask for any special treatment. They seek fairness and dignity alongside their colleagues. It's wrong to exploit vulnerable people who perhaps don't understand the law or are tied to work by a particular type of visa so that they are petrified to speak out. This must stop.

This isn't just the opinion of leaders in the unions. People in other areas have made their position loud and clear. It's basically about what's right and what's wrong. Recently I attended the 2023 regional migration conference, which was held in Adelaide. This issue was raised by migration lawyers, migration agents and other people that are in this space. It's a prime example of how powerful it can be to have people from all different areas in work and life in one room, and many stories were shared that day. One strong point was made clear. It's no secret that there are strong links between migration, globalisation and sustainable development. Migrants have always brought and will continue to bring attributes that have a positive impact on our economy, on the Australian workforce and on the communities they live in. So neglecting the migration system not only hurts migrants but also hurts the Australian workforce.

From my experience of being for a number of years on the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, I understand how important it is for Australians to not only welcome highly skilled migrants but also protect them in our workplaces. We have a duty to do so. It's not acceptable for any worker to endure mistreatment, underpayment or exploitation—we heard about many examples of this when I was on the migration committee—and that standard does not change for those who come to our shores in search of a better future. They should not be denied their rightful share of the prosperity that they actually help create.

This Albanese Labor Government is committed to rectifying this injustice, and that is what this bill, at its core, is all about. This bill ensures that we're taking concrete steps to ensure that every worker, regardless of their background or visa status, is treated with dignity and fairness because we believe in a society where the rights of workers should be and are uphill and we believe in a society where exploitation is eradicated.

No-one should stand for deceitful contracting or the unlawful seizure of passports. We heard many stories about people going to perhaps a remote place to pick fruit, to work on a farm or to do other work, where their passports were taken from them. There were many, many accounts of this happening. There have been incidents of harassment and even acts of assault, just to name a few of the things that I've heard in my electorate office and on the migration committee. These accounts are not sporadic occurrences. They represent the daily ordeals faced by numerous temporary visa holders in Australia. Again I say that this is not all employers; the majority are good employers paying the proper wages et cetera. But, when it is 26 per cent of all litigation through the Fair Work Commission, you know there is a problem. That's why this bill is here today.

I was in Brussels last year, and there was a meeting with the mayor of one of the municipalities who I knew from years ago. We'd had some connection through some international conferences. At the end of the meeting he came up and asked to see me. He was telling me about his daughter who had come out here backpacking and fruit picking and what had happened to her. It was very embarrassing to be there, in front of an international community, with this mayor telling me the story about the tribulations of his daughter, who had her passport taken away by her boss and hadn't known where to turn or what to do. I was hearing this firsthand in Brussels.

As I said, these accounts are not sporadic occurrences. This happens on a regular basis, and we must put an end to it. We're resolute to the commitment of putting an end to this unfairness. So this bill is also introducing new criminal offences to hold accountable those who exploit vulnerable individuals based on their migration status within the workplace. This aligns perfectly with recommendation 19 of the report from Professor Allan Fels, which is entitled Report of the Migrant Workers' Taskforce. In addition, the bill is equipping authorities with new tools to prohibit employers engaging in exploitation practices from hiring workers on temporary visas for a defined period. This corresponds to recommendation 20 from the taskforce, reflecting our determination to shield vulnerable workers from continued exploitation.

We're recognising the necessity of imposing more substantial penalties for those who engage in these unethical practices. To bolster enforcement, the Australian Border Force will receive new compliance tools, ensuring that employers who exploit workers face the appropriate consequences. Furthermore, steps will be taken to repeal a portion of the Migration Act that inadvertently criminalises workers for breaching their visa conditions. This prevents people from speaking up. It prevents people from going to the authorities. It prevents people from perhaps even joining a union or speaking out. It was an outdated provision. I'm pleased that it's going because it discouraged individuals, as I said, from speaking up about exploitation. So, to rectify this, the bill is instituting safeguards to protect workers who bravely report exploitation from visa cancellations. We've seen it being used continuously. We've seen stories in the media. We heard stories during the migration committee hearings of the threats of cancelling visas or taking away their visas if they didn't comply or spoke out. So the aim is clear. This bill is dedicated to protecting workers' rights and their dignity. I know that by supporting this bill—you'd think everyone in this place would be supporting it—you respect workers' rights. Where their contributions are valued is exploitation becomes a thing of past.

The bill addresses the recommendations made in the Report of the Migration Workers' Taskforce, as well as additional measures that will tackle the exploitation of vulnerable workers on temporary visas. It will establish new criminal offences and associated civil penalties to deter employers from using the visa condition or status to coerce, unduly influence or unduly pressure someone in the workplace. It will establish a new mechanism to prohibit an employer from hiring any additional people on temporary visas for a period of time. That one is really important because, if you're doing the wrong thing, you shouldn't have the opportunity to hire anyone else until you're doing the right thing. So that's a good measure in the report and in the bill. We're also increasing the maximum criminal and civil penalties, as I said, for all current and proposed work-related offences and provisions in the Migration Act. We're creating additional tools for the Australian Border Force to address employer compliance and repealing section 235 of the Migration Act, which makes it a criminal offence to breach a work related visa condition. We are revising the regulation-making power in the Migration Act to ensure that workers exploitation must be taken into consideration for visa cancellation decisions.

At the heart of this bill is fairness and equity for all workers, regardless of where you've come from and what sort of work you're doing. It's at the core of our Australian way of life. Every worker should be paid equally with rights and conditions to ensure that no-one is exploited, especially vulnerable workers, people who have come from overseas, whether they're on a temporary visa or some form of bridging visa. We need to ensure that their rights are protected, not only because they are vulnerable and may not know the law but also because it is really important to empower them to speak out when something is being done wrongly to them at their workplace. I commend this bill. I'd like to think that everyone in this place would support it, because at the core of it is equality: equal pay for the same sort of work for any citizen of Australia and anyone who's here for temporary work.


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