Monday, 11 September 2023
Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023; Second Reading
I stand to contribute to the debate on the Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023.
I speak on the subject from experience. Many in this place already know my story. Out of all the lands across the world, my parents decided to make Australia home. This was back in 1976. While I have Goan Indian heritage, my parents grew up in Kenya. My parents migrated to Australia via Africa. When my dad, who is a metalworker, went to the Australian Embassy in Kenya, they said to him, 'You've got the right skills, but you're the wrong colour.' That was, of course, because we still had the White Australia policy in place. When the Gough Whitlam government dismantled the last parts of this policy, that's when my parents decided to come to Australia.
My parents migrated to Kalgoorlie. My dad came first. He was working at Mount Charlotte. It was a pretty exciting time. He had a wonderful boss. My mum and my sister came later. When they rocked up to Kalgoorlie, dad had heard they were coming, but there was no accommodation for them. The company that dad was working for was supposed to arrange it, but for some reason or another it didn't fall into place. The single men's quarters were exactly that: a place for single men, not a place for families. My dad's anxiety and stress increased. Clearly his performance must have been impacted at work. Bob, dad's boss, said: 'Joe, what's the matter? Why are you worried?' Dad explained that there was no accommodation for his wife and daughter. Luckily, Bob stepped in where the employer did not and provided accommodation for my mum and sister. It's hard to know whether this was a deliberate attempt from the employer or whether it was an oversight. But one of the things that we have seen in Australia is systematic exploitation of migrant workers.
This Albanese Labor government wants to ensure that we look at the structures that are in place and make sure that we make them fairer for all people, including new migrants who come to Australia. The truth is that this country has been built on the back of migrants. There's amazing work that has been achieved through the use of migrant workers. We want them to continue to contribute to Australia. This is the reason why we're looking at this bill. Once again, we are at a time in our economy when businesses are screaming out for skilled migrants to help plug skills gaps.
Sadly, often what we see for many migrant workers in our country is that the fair workplaces of Australia are not their lived experience. I know about a Sydney childcare centre operator who failed to pay two employees, under the premise of it being a volunteer arrangement. They were fined $30,000 in penalties and were ordered to provide backpay. I also know about a major waste company that was charged with allegedly underpaying five vulnerable migrant workers a combined total of $190,000. In my home town of Perth, I know of a disability service provider that was fined and ordered to pay back six migrant workers from India and Ireland that it had systematically underpaid for a five-year period. These are not isolated cases.
The Grattan Institute report in May this year explained that exploitation, underpaying and unscrupulous treatment of migrant workers by employers is widespread. It reported that recent migrants to Australia are twice as likely as long-term residents to be underpaid, and up to 16 per cent of recent migrants are paid less than the national average.
Migrant workers are more vulnerable than other workers. Why is this? The office of the commissioner of human rights explains that migrants are at heightened risk of exploitation and abuse in the workplace because of vulnerabilities unique to their temporary visa status. This can include a number of different things, such as deceptive recruitment practices by employers, a lack of social supports and systems and connections to the community to understand what the norms are. Sometimes there are cultural and language barriers, and often there's a lack of awareness of their work and legal rights and also a limit of access to those services. There is also this fundamental power imbalance. The fact that they're dependent on their employer for their visa status makes it a really challenging work environment. There's often a reliance by family members on migrant workers to send money back to their homes by remittance.
Current penalties on employers for exploiting these vulnerabilities are, frankly, soft. The Grattan Institute argues that they are not at all a deterrent. It compares the $4 million worth of penalties handed out to unscrupulous employers of migrant workers in 2022 with the $3 billion in fines issued by the Australian tax office to people who have not paid their taxes. This soft approach to worker exploitation is, frankly, unacceptable. People need to be put first. This is why we need to pay this crisis the attention it deserves and make the legislative changes that are needed to put an end to exploitation. The Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill does exactly that. I commend Minister Tony Burke, Minister Clare O'Neil and Minister Andrew Giles for their collaboration in bringing forward this bill. I acknowledge the work they have done in engaging with civil organisations, unions and industries to develop legislation to alleviate the crisis of exploitation and to implement measures that will strengthen the compliance of employers to the fair and just treatment of migrant workers.
The recommendations in the bill have the support of the Grattan Institute, which has called for these reforms through its advocacy work to the government and to industry. I commend them for their work in this space and their dedication to improving the treatment of migrant workers in Australia. This bill will strengthen the compliance of employers with regulations that seek to protect vulnerable workers. The Fair Work Act and the Migration Act will work hand in hand to penalise employers who do not comply with the law.
This bill addresses the discrepancy and implements recommendations that were included in the 2019 report by the Migrant Workers Taskforce. They are recommendations to the former Liberal government which were accepted in principle but failed to be implemented. It's another example of the coalition not following through with action, doing the review but not following up with legislative change. It is a continued theme of the wasted decade under the coalition government, and I don't think it's because the coalition government was pro exploitation. I don't think that's the case. The truth is I don't know the precise reason for their failure, but the thing I can say about the 47th Parliament is that it is the most multicultural parliament we've ever had in Australia. This means that we have more people from diverse backgrounds making decisions and we're thinking about the impacts of these policies to make sure that we actually see what Australia looks like today, but also how we want it to exist in the future.
This crisis of exploitation of the rights of migrant workers that was caused by the 10 years of neglect by the Liberal government was a continued theme, but thanks to this Labor government it will now be a criminal offence for someone to unduly influence, pressure or coerce a temporary migrant worker to breach a condition of their visa. Thanks to this Labor government, employers who have been convicted of underpaying temporary migrants will be prevented from employing new temporary visa holders for a period determined by the court.
This bill has also thought carefully about how these measures will be enforced. In order to ensure the Australian Border Force is properly resourced, $50 million will be allocated over the next four years to enhance its role in employer compliance. The Grattan Institute reports that migrant workers know that they're underpaid but they don't act. Under amendments to the legislation made by this bill, migrants should have no fear in acting against their employers who are underpaying them. This bill will go further to introduce additional measures to tackle the exploitation by employers of workers on temporary visas. The removal of the section in the Migration Act that makes it a criminal offence to breach a work-related visa condition means that workers will not need to fear criminal sanctions for speaking up against a work related condition of their visa when that condition is a product of an exploitative work environment. This is a big step towards making sure that some of the most vulnerable workers in our country—migrants and temporary visa holders—are supported in speaking out.
Prior to the pandemic, migrants accounted for a growing share of Australia's workforce. The exploitation of this section of the workforce doesn't only affect them; it hurts all workers by driving down wages and worsening employment conditions for everyone. When the most vulnerable parts of our community are strong, all of Australia is strong. People come to Australia because they believe in this fundamental principle of a fair go, and that's essentially at the heart of this bill. It's about fairness and equity, and that's something that the Albanese Labor government believes in. Not only do we believe in it, but we are prepared to act on it by strengthening these laws to ensure that migrant workers are not exploited. I think this is a wonderful bill that the migrant community will welcome. I commend the bill to the House.