Monday, 11 September 2023
Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023; Second Reading
We had a citizenship ceremony in parliament this morning, and it was a wonderful thing to see citizens swearing their allegiance and being part of this country in a permanent way. I'll be attending a number of citizenship ceremonies on the weekend in the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury. I regret to say that it's probably a reasonable assumption that, among the group of people I will see sworn in, there's a strong chance that at some point in their journey, or their family's journey, in migrating to Australia, they have suffered exploitation at the hands of a worker, because the statistics of the exploitation of migrant workers are quite frightening.
We know 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 the same job. We also know that up to one in six recent migrants are paid less than the minimum wage. I thank organisations and researchers, like the Grattan Institute, for looking into this and helping to put more data around a very grey area. Temporary visa holders make up four per cent of the workforce, but, in 2021-22, they made up 26 per cent of all litigation initiated for breaching the Fair Work Act, and that's data from under the Fair Work Act. That's government data that tells us that. That's why the Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023 is so important. It's important for anyone who has chosen to come to Australia and work, whether they're a backpacker or an international student, or they're on a working visa, because those people are way more likely to be exploited.
It's certainly not to say that every employer is doing the wrong thing. We know they're not. I was a sponsor of an overseas worker some 20 years ago, with whom I still have a very good working relationship. There are so many employers who will do the right thing. I know, in my electorate, when employers ring me and say, 'We're hoping to be able to get this person's visa so they can come and work here'—or get it extended, and all those things—it's because they genuinely value that worker. But, sadly, the data shows that it's not just the odd case of exploitation. There has been widespread exploitation, and some sectors are much worse than others. I think many of us will recall hearing stories in this place in recent years from workers who had been on farms picking fruit. In the agricultural sector, there have certainly been stories that have been shared with all of us. But, as I say, it is widespread.
What makes me really angry about that sort of exploitation is obviously the effect on that person. It is an appalling thing to happen. It also undercuts all the businesses who are doing the right thing. It makes an uneven playing field, and it not just hurts individual workers but also drives down wages, worsens conditions for all workers and creates a very uneven playing field for businesses. We are committed to addressing this inequity, and this bill implements the key recommendations from Professor Allan Fels' Migrant Workers' Taskforce report. It introduces new criminal offences if a person has their migration status exploited in the workplace. That's recommendation 19 from the task force. There's also action on recommendation 20 with a new tool to prohibit employers engaging in exploitative practices from hiring workers on temporary visas for a period of time.
The bill will go even further. There will be higher penalties for those who do the wrong thing. Importantly, the Australian Border Force is receiving new compliance tools because it has a key role in enforcing this. We'll repeal a part of the Migration Act that makes it a criminal penalty for workers to breach their visa conditions, which effectively criminalises speaking up. We don't want that to happen. We want workers to be able to speak about what occurs, and we'll promote workers so that they can speak up and report exploitation by putting in place appropriate protections from visa cancellation, because they live in fear. They live in fear that the dream that they had of coming to Australia will end because an employer is doing the wrong thing by them. Their desire to be here is so strong that they will often put up with really appalling situations.
This bill is one part of our plan to protect workers. In the 2023-24 budget, the Albanese government provided $50 million to the Australian Border Force over four years. The ABF then oversaw a month of action in July, targeting employers who were suspected of doing the wrong thing. For the first time in a long time there is a government that is raising awareness about employer obligations and actually getting out and visiting businesses in a substantive way. The work would not be possible without that increase in funding for the ABF and the priority that this government places on tackling worker exploitation.
We've also engaged in intensive codesign around this with industry, unions and civil society to help inform the design of further safeguards in the visa system. We know we don't have all the answers, and we have a commitment to working with those involved to make sure that it's safe for people to speak up when they are experiencing exploitation or when they're witnessing exploitation. We're exploring a potential new visa for workplace justice as well as ways to make sure people can feel confident their visa won't be cancelled. We know there are gaps in what workers understand as well as in what some employers understand, and we know many people don't know where to go if something does go wrong. These are many of the things that we will work on—some of them in this bill and some going forward.
I just want to speak in detail about a couple of the measures in this bill. On the role of the ABF, you have to be able to go into workplaces and have people trained and skilled to investigate these matters. We have determined that the Australian Border Force is the lead agency for this. They will be out there enforcing the law when it comes to employers who choose to do the wrong thing. For too long the consequences have really just been a slap on the wrist. The chances of getting caught have been very, very small, and that really goes to the situation that we inherited when we came to office.
Under the previous government, it was essentially an area of deep neglect. As with many other things, we are trying to clean up a mess that we were left. The former Liberal government oversaw a crisis of exploitation and did very little about it despite the national debate in the wake of the 7-Eleven scandal, where we learnt what was happening in that franchise group. In spite of all the evidence being laid out, the former Liberal government did nothing. They sat on their hands and failed to implement the key recommendations from the Migrant Workers' Taskforce, which reported to the Morrison government in 2019. It's not like they ran out of time to do something; they simply chose not to. Two years later, a bill was introduced, but it was never even put forward for debate, let alone put to a vote or pushed to the Senate. It was just, 'We'll pretend we're doing something,' and that sums up the former government's attitude to tackling exploitation. They also prefer temporary visas to permanent visas, which makes it easier for unscrupulous employers to target these vulnerable workers. We were also left with a backlog of a million visa applications, and that is symptomatic of the sort of neglect that was shown. That's why the role of Border Force in enforcing this is really key.
The other measure that I want to refer to is the prohibition measure. The taskforce report recommended exploring ways to exclude employers from employing more workers who hold a temporary visa, for a specific period of time, where the employer has been convicted by a court of underpaying migrants. It seems a pretty reasonable thing to do, and that's why we are doing it. The new prohibition measure will prevent employers and other third parties from hiring any temporary visa holders where they have a conviction for exploiting workers. At the moment, the only bar under the Migration Act on hiring is for sponsored workers, such as those who hold a temporary skills shortage visa, but the new measure will prevent prohibited employers from hiring non-sponsored workers who hold any form of temporary visa, including international students. If I were a parent wanting to see my child study in Australia, I would hope there were protections that would save them from rampant exploitation. The prohibition will be in place for a specific period of time, and, importantly, a list of prohibited employers will be published on the Home Affairs website. These are some of the practical, sensible, reasonable measures in this bill, and they will make it better for workers coming from other countries on temporary visas or as international students or backpackers to be treated with respect and dignity, which is what every single worker deserves.
I will know that this legislation and the other package of measures that we're taking are effective when we see an end to the fear: an end to the fear of workers, in this case migrant workers, speaking out about what they have experienced; an end to the shame that is attached to it; and an end to the anxiety and sense of dread that they have when they're in a situation where their work is not being respected. As the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs says, work conditions can't be a race to the bottom. When migrant workers are underpaid, it hurts all of us. These reforms will help workers speak up and target those employers who do the wrong thing, and I'm very proud that it is an Albanese Labor government that is making these important changes.