Monday, 11 September 2023
Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023; Second Reading
I rise to speak on this important bill about preventing the exploitation of migrant workers. The Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill is part of the Albanese government's package of reforms to tackle the exploitation of workers. It implements key recommendations from Professor Allan Fels's Migrant Workers Taskforce report. I want to commend the Minister for Workplace Relations, the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs and the Minister for Home Affairs, and the hardworking public servants in their departments, for their work in bringing this bill together. After a decade of neglect, the Albanese Labor government is cleaning up the former coalition government's mess. This bill responds to a report that was handed down in 2019. It took the former government two years to introduce a bill, and then the bill was not even brought on for debate, let alone put to a vote. We saw that happen so much in the last parliament. This sums up the former government's attitude to tackling exploitation. It's another example of those opposite sitting on their hands and looking the other way as a crisis worsens.
It is obvious that only Labor governments will stand up for workers facing exploitation—workers like Ramadan, who came to Australia in 2018 and worked in a restaurant. His boss promised that he would be sponsored to get a permanent visa in Australia. He was paid in cash, and amounts were deducted for accommodation and 'visa fees'. What money was left Ramadan sent overseas to his wife and daughters. When the restaurant went through a quiet period in January 2019, Ramadan's boss stopped paying him. Ramadan's questions about his unpaid wages were met with his boss telling him that if he wanted a visa he should keep quiet. Months passed, and Ramadan's family kept asking for money. He asked his boss again. His boss said that the business could not pay him and he was going to close. Ramadan asked about his visa and was told that it was with the department of immigration. He contacted the department and found out that no application had ever been lodged.
Another example of an exploited worker, as reported by the Guardian, is a person who goes by the pseudonym Esther. Esther came to Australia to study business and was also a qualified chef. Using her qualification she found work quickly, working in a Korean restaurant in Sydney to support herself through her studies. Her student visa mandated that she work no more than 40 hours a fortnight, but her boss forced her to work more than 40 hours and threatened to sack her if she did not comply. Esther's boss also told her that if she left she would not be able to get any other job, as he would tell other employers not to hire her. The award that Esther was working under mandated a minimum pay of $23.64 an hour; however, she was only paid $15 an hour. She had no ability to raise these issues with anyone, under the threat of losing her job, not finding other employment and being reported for working more than her visa allowed. The article reports:
She said working conditions were oppressive: staff were shouted at and abused, told they were hopeless and constantly threatened they would be dismissed for "working too slowly".
Esther said she and other workers were abused regularly and kept in a climate of fear. Esther said that she and her colleagues were worked like slaves, were always hurried and weren't given any time to eat lunch or dinner or even go to the toilet. Esther was kept in a constant state of fear and tiredness from being overworked without adequate breaks. She said that these conditions caused her to stop eating. She lost significant amounts of weight and couldn't sleep from the stress.
Another example is that of Joe, whose story was also reported in the Guardian. He was regularly exploited in a series of jobs across Sydney and was sacked when he spoke up. Joe notes that exploited workers were 'controlled from the minute they arrive in Australia'. He said:
Agents are closely connected with the exploiters themselves, and everything is organised, right from the beginning. When people arrive at the airport there is somebody there to take them … to accommodation.
Joe describes the accommodation as like a slave camp, with seven or eight workers crammed into a room to sleep. He describes being woken up very early in the morning and driven to a building site to work. He said that he felt confused about where he was and who he was working for:
These are like forced labour camps, it is like slave labour, these people aren't free at all.
According to the article, Joe said that in some cases migrant workers have their passports taken from them:
They are not given employment contracts, and there is no agreement on conditions or rates of pay. The face exorbitant deductions from the money that they are paid for rent, food, or other expenses.
Joe also spoke about other workers:
… particularly students studying in Australia, find jobs through the Korean local media, where jobs are advertised in Korean without any reference to award rates, or conditions. Some openly advertise pay rates as low as $12 an hour … workers are often kept in bleak conditions, crowded into already-overfull houses, especially in the Sydney suburbs of Strathfield and Lidcombe.
Joe said that these rooms are so small, exploited workers cannot even stretch their legs: 'Animals should not be kept like this, let alone people.'
This bill will implement reforms to ensure that workers are treated better than this. Part 1 of the bill amends the Migration Act to add new criminal and civil offences concerning coercing people to work in breach of their visa conditions or using their visa status to exploit workers. The penalty will be up to two years in prison or 360 penalty units. This is an important deterrent to employers who think about exploiting workers due to visa conditions.
Part 2 of the bill amends the Migration Act to prohibit employers and individuals from hiring future workers on temporary visas. New prohibition notices will enable the minister to declare employers and individuals to be prohibited from hiring new workers on temporary visas for a period of time. Employers and individuals will be subject to these discretionary prohibition notices when they are found to have breached migration and employment law. Triggers for prohibition will include court orders and noncompliance with employment and migration law. This is an important step in protecting workers, filling the gap in legislation so that employers who have been sanctioned under the Migration Act can be prevented from hiring more international students or backpackers.
Part 3 of the bill amends the Migration Act to increase penalties for work related breaches to align with the maximum penalties available under the Migration Act. Specifically, the penalties will increase from 60 units to 240 units.
Part 4 of the bill amends the Migration Act to introduce enforceable undertakings for work related breaches. The Fair Work Ombudsman already successfully uses enforceable undertakings as a tool to promote compliance with the Fair Work Act in other areas. This amendment will ensure that migrant workers can also be protected by this tool, and this reform will be implemented by the Australian Border Force.
Part 5 of the bill amends the act to make work related offences and provisions subject to compliance notices. A compliance notice is a formal notice to employers who breach relevant Migration Act and migration regulation rules. Compliance notices are already successfully used to promote compliance with the Fair Work Act and will work to protect migrant workers as well. This reform will also be implemented by the Australian Border Force.
Part 6 of the bill will amend the act to allow exploitation of a worker to be considered as a potential mitigating factor when a visa cancellation is under consideration. This will send an important message to migrants on temporary visas who are worried to speak up—that their visa will not be cancelled if they are being exploited.
This bill is supported by many groups, including the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the Migrant Justice Institute, the Human Rights Law Centre and the Grattan Institute, as well as by the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance, the peak body for the horticultural sector, a sector which employs thousands of migrant workers.
This bill adds to the Albanese government's broad reform agenda to the migration and visa system—reforms such as this government slashing the visa backlog that we inherited from our predecessors. Less than 600,000 visa applications are currently being processed, down from just under a million when we came to government, after we invested in our Public Service by adding 500 more staff to address this backlog. Temporary skill shortage visas for health and education workers are being assessed and finalised in days, rather than the months it took under those opposite. We increased the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold to $70,000—the first increase since the last Labor Government in 2013. Finally, we have abolished the AAT, after those opposite politicised the institution. These reforms have allowed for more skilled migrants to come to Australia and increase our economic productivity.
This bill, and our wider reforms, are making our economy fairer and reducing the amount of exploitation in the workforce, because it is only fair that people who come as temporary migrants be treated with the same respect and rights as other workers in our economy. I am so proud to be a part of a government that takes this issue seriously and that hasn't sat around for three years without even introducing a bill into parliament but has responded with urgency to this, because these people matter. We want people to see Australia as a welcoming place and a place where people are treated fairly, as, after all, most Australians pride ourselves on our nation being the place of the fair go. So this bill is putting into practice a little bit of that, ensuring that temporary migrant workers are not exploited, as in some of those terrible examples that I talked about. I'm very proud that our government is tackling this issue head on and improving the conditions for migrant workers.