Monday, 11 September 2023
Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023; Second Reading
Like the member for Canberra, I, too, am proud that our government is taking this issue, particularly the exploitation of workers, extremely seriously. I want to thank her for her advocacy on this. She cares very deeply about fairness and seeing that people are properly remunerated and are not exploited, and I join her in that worthy cause. As the member for Canberra mentioned, we are the nation of the fair go, but it does not just happen by itself. You've got to act. You've got to show leadership, in order to bring about the conditions by which fairness reigns.
For almost a decade, we saw a situation where not enough was done in this sector, in this area of concern, and, unfortunately, exploitation was allowed to take hold in different parts of our economy. That is a shame, but what is done is done. We are getting on with the job, because it is up to us, as the federal government now, to fix a lot of the loopholes and to reform acts of parliament that will tackle this issue of exploitation of workers in our nation.
Now, one in six recent migrants to Australia is paid less than the minimum wage, and of course this exploitation doesn't just hurt the individual worker but effectively drives down wages and worsens conditions and pay for all Australian workers. That's why it should matter not just because of the humanity of making sure that we look after people in accordance with the law but so that we make sure that we have a fair and just society. We see exploitation all around us, and we are committed to addressing it.
The bill will implement key recommendations from Professor Allan Fels's Migrant Workers' Taskforce report. There are new criminal offences for using a person's migration status to exploit them in the workplace, and that is recommendation 19. There is a new tool to prohibit employers engaging in exploitative practices from being able to hire workers on temporary visas for a period of time, and that is recommendation 20 from the task force. The bill will go further. There will be higher penalties for those who do the wrong thing. The ABF will receive new compliance tools. We will repeal that part of the Migration Act that that was effectively criminalising workers for speaking up and we will encourage workers to speak up and report exploitation by putting in place appropriate protections from visa cancellation.
This bill is one part of our government's plan to protect workers. In the 2023-24 budget our government provided $50 million to the Australian Border Force over four years. The ABF oversaw a month of action in July, targeting those employers who were suspected of doing the wrong thing. For the first time in a long time the government is raising awareness of employer obligations and getting out and visiting businesses in a substantive way. This work would not have been possible without the increase in funding in the previous budget and the prioritisation this government places on tackling worker exploitation. In addition, the government has been engaged in an intensive co-design process with industry, the union movement and civil society to help inform the design of further safeguards in the visa system. We want to make it is safe for people to speak up when they are being exploited in the workplace. We are exploring a potential new visa for workplace justice as well as ways to make sure people can feel confident that their visa won't be cancelled for speaking up.
Through consultation we know there are gaps in what workers understand as well as what some employers understand. We know many people don't know where to go if something is wrong. It is not good enough that recent migrants are 40 per cent more likely to be underpaid than long-term residents with the same skills and experience and who work in the same job, according to a Grattan Institute report. It is also not good enough that one in six recent migrants are paid less than the minimum wage. In fact, it is shameful. Temporary visa holders make up four per cent of the workforce, but in the year 2021-22 they made up 26 per cent of all litigation initiated for breaching the Fair Work Act.
We need a migration system that works for everyone. Under paragraph 245AAA of the Migration Act, new criminal and civil offences are being introduced concerning coercing people to work in breach of their visa conditions or using their visa status to exploit those workers. The penalty will be up to two years in prison or 360 penalty units. That is an important deterrent to employers who think about exploiting workers due to their visa conditions, and we all know that it is happening. Under paragraph 245AYA of the Migration Act, new prohibition notices will enable the minister or a delegate of the minister to declare employers and individuals to be prohibited from hiring new workers on temporary visas for that 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 non-compliance with employment and migration law, and, where employers and individuals are subject to prohibition notices, the minister must publish the relevant details on the department's website. This is an important step, an accountability step, as there is currently no ability to prevent employers who have been sanctioned under the Migration Act from hiring international students or backpackers, despite the vulnerability that we all know these workers face.
Penalties are increasing for work based breaches, to align with the maximum penalties available under the Migration Act. This will see penalties increase from 60 units to 240 units, a substantial increase. This will send an important deterrence message. From paragraph 245ALA of the Migration Act, work related offences and provisions are being made subject to enforceable undertakings. An enforceable undertaking is a written agreement between an entity or person and the government. The Fair Work Ombudsman successfully uses enforceable undertakings as a tool to promote compliance with the Fair Work Act—that is, with the law. This amendment will seek to use similar provisions under the Migration Act by the Australian Border Force. This will provide the ABF with additional tools in their enforcement approach.
From paragraph 245AYP of the Migration Act, work related offences and provisions are also being made subject to compliance notices. So it is enforceable actions and compliance notices. A compliance notice, of course, is a formal notice to employers who breach relevant Migration Act and Migration Regulations rules. This will provide the ABF with additional tools in their enforcement approach as well. Under section 116(1A) of the Migration Act, the exploitation of a worker will be able to be considered as a potential mitigating factor when 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.
Work conditions can't be a race to the bottom. That's why the government has introduced this bill into parliament to help workers speak up and target employers who do the wrong thing. There is a crisis of exploitation at the moment, with up to one in six recent migrants paid less than the minimum wage—as I mentioned before, but I think it's worth mentioning again. It is a shocking statistic. When migrant workers are being underpaid, it hurts all of us, driving wages and conditions down.
For a decade those opposite, the former coalition government, put the safety of migrant workers on the backburner. These reforms will help workers speak up and target those employers who do the wrong thing. Over the last 10 years, our migration system has drifted deeper and deeper into a reliance on low-paid temporary migrant workers, who we know are routinely exploited, under a government that simultaneously did nothing to prevent this exploitation. This indifference stops with our government. That's leadership.
We are in consultation on systemic changes to our migration system which will ensure it works in the best interests of Australian workers and businesses. We are also doing the necessary work to ensure that no-one who comes to this country is exploited or abused. The fact that this has been happening almost unchecked in our migration system in recent times is a reflection on the competency and values of the former government.
Exploiting workers is never acceptable. We are committed to stamping it out wherever it's happening and protecting all workers working in Australia, regardless of their migration status. After that decade of neglect, our government is cleaning up the mess of those opposite. Despite the national debate in the wake of the 7-Eleven scandal, the former coalition government, those opposite, sat on their hands. The former Liberal government failed to implement key recommendations from the Migrant Workers Taskforce, which reported to the Morrison government in 2019. Two years later a bill was introduced, but, as was so common with that government in particular, the bill was never even put forward for debate, let alone put to a vote or pushed into the Senate. That is another example, if anyone needed any, about the attitude of the former government to tackling exploitation. They preferred temporary visas to permanent visas, making it easier for unscrupulous employers to target vulnerable workers, when what we all want to see in this country is for some permanent migration that is skilled to come in and help us build our wonderful nation. We certainly don't want to see people exploited.
There was a massive backlog created, as my friend the member for Canberra articulated well, of almost one million visa applications. Those opposite neglected basic administrative tasks by looking the other way, and, as a chief of the army once said, if you're looking the other way, that's not leadership. The previous government neglected workers by failing to act, and we are fixing that. I commend this bill to the House.