House debates

Monday, 11 September 2023


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

4:23 pm

Photo of Ged KearneyGed Kearney (Cooper, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care) Share this | Hansard source

I'll assist the House and withdraw that comment. But the Liberal-National parties, when they were in government, did definitely fail to implement key recommendations from the Migrant Workers' Taskforce that reported to the Morrison government in 2019. They did fail to act, and they left these migrant workers at the mercy of unscrupulous employers.

Two years later a bill was introduced, but, as is so common with the former government, it was never even put forward to debate, let alone put to a vote or even tabled in the Senate. We shouldn't be surprised. They used to call a press conference. They would appoint an expert. They would say some big words. And then they would let an important report gather dust. I'm sure they were very busy when they were ignoring the task force's recommendations and not bringing the bill on for a debate, but they did create a backlog of almost one million visa applications. They neglected basic administrative tasks. And they turned a blind eye. But now we are going to act. It's critical that we do.

The chair of the Migrant Workers' Taskforce, Professor Allan Fels, said recently: 'This exploitation has been a severe problem for at least 10 years. There have been huge numbers of underpaid and exploited migrant workers and nothing was done about it. Now it is extremely timely because of the expected increase in migration.' As the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs said, 'There is a crisis of exploitation in Australian workplaces.'

I have spent much of my life standing up for the rights of workers right across this country. As federal secretary of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Association and for a decade as president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions I saw time and time again exploitation of workers under the coalition government that was absolutely unacceptable. Let me tell you a little bit about what I saw. I saw exploitation of aged-care workers, where they came into this country on temporary visas, were promised that if they did training courses with the provider they would be registered as RNs. Apart from that bit being absolutely untrue, they were told if they worked three-month internships unpaid that they would then get their certificate and their wish to become registered here would come to pass. This, of course, was untrue.

We found rotating workers working for nothing in aged-care facilities. The whistle was blown on this practice by good union members who worked alongside these workers. They saw the exploitation and were not prepared to put up with it. They contacted the union and blew the whistle. We were able to mitigate that and stop that practice happening. I saw nurses from China who were sent to the outback without any training in rural and remote nursing, working as hard as they possibly could with very little time off. They had their wages docked for 'expenses'—outrageous amounts of money taken from their pay packets for things like accommodation, food and other expenses. Again, union RNs blew the whistle on this practice. The union was brought in, and we were able to help.

I heard terrible stories. I met with workers at a factory who pulled up stumps and went on strike because a worker on a temporary visa was sent into a very unsafe situation in a factory. He was told that it cost too much to turn the machines off for him to get in there and clean underneath the machine. It was actually a chicken decapitating factory—I don't mean to get too explicit about this. As a result of those blades spinning around and the employer not turning off the machines, that man was killed. He was too scared to speak up. He was too scared to say, 'This is dangerous.' He was too scared to say he didn't want to go in there and clean that factory floor, because he thought he would lose his job. He thought his family would be unsafe back home. He wanted to stay.

This bill is so important because of all the people that have been exploited. It enhances the ability of our visa and enforcement system to stand up and tackle worker exploitation, and it focuses on targeting employers and third parties who misuse our migration program. The bill aims to strengthen employer compliance and ensure that businesses that do the right thing and abide by the law are not undercut by competitors who are not upstanding and who set out to undermine workers. In the case of the so-called traineeships and the internships, for example, who can compete with slave labour? Nobody.

This legislation enacts two key recommendations from the Migrant Workers' Taskforce report:

Recommendation 19:

It is recommended that the Government consider developing legislation so that a person who knowingly unduly influences, pressures or coerces a temporary migrant worker to breach a condition of their visa is guilty of an offence.

Recommendation 20

It is recommended that the Government explore mechanisms to exclude employers who have been convicted by a court of underpaying temporary migrant workers from employing new temporary visa holders for a specific period.

We see exploitation all around us, and this government is committed to addressing it. The bill will bring in new criminal offences, implementing a recommendation of the Migrant Workers' Taskforce, making it an offence for a person to knowingly pressure or influence a worker to breach a condition of their visa. It gives effect to the recommendations I just mentioned. It increases the penalties for employers who do the wrong thing and misuse our migration program and migration rules. It gives the Australian Border Force tools to support employers to do the right thing. Importantly, it repeals section 235 of the Migration Act, which criminalised speaking out. We know this is a barrier for workers. We know workers have been afraid to speak out and report exploitation. In our national workplace relations system, laws should apply to all workers, regardless of their visa status.

I'm proud to stand in this Labor government and with ministers who are delivering on our commitments, as we promised to do at the election, and this is one of them. Since coming to government, the Albanese Labor government has worked tirelessly to slash the visa backlog. We've reduced the number of pending visa applications, from one million to 600,000. Temporary skill shortage visas for health and education workers are underway. We've given TPV and SHEV holders a pathway to permanency. We have flagged our intention to increase the number of community sponsored visas for asylum seekers, over and above the humanitarian intake. We've reduced our citizenship backlog to the lowest level in six years, and we've given 380,000 New Zealanders a pathway to citizenship in Australia.

This government was elected on a promise to get wages moving, and that's exactly what we've done. To do that, we need to close the loopholes that undermine wages. One of the first things we did after forming government was pass the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Secure Jobs, Better Pay) Bill. Because of our government's reforms, Australian workers now have access to a better workplace bargaining system, which will help lift wages, improve job security and close the gender pay gap. The 'secure jobs, better pay' bill is also about in enshrining gender pay equity as an objective of the Fair Work Act. We've abolished pay secrecy clauses. We've introduced 10 days of paid family and domestic violence leave, which is so important. No woman should ever have to choose between her job and her safety. This entitlement is now enshrined in the National Employment Standards for around 11 million employees. We've invested a record $11.3 billion to pay for a 15 per cent pay rise for aged-care workers, a workplace where I know many migrants find a career.

Our latest industrial relations bill will tackle the issue of and criminalise wage theft, it will look after gig workers, it will stop labour hire companies from undercutting hard-fought-for EBA conditions and it will change the definition of 'casual worker' so that a casual worker can actually be made permanent. This bill is a natural extension of all of those other bills that are making wages and conditions better and keeping workers safe. As the minister for immigration said, 'We cannot build our nation on the back of those being exploited.'

I'm proud of the work this government is delivering for Australian people. I'm certainly proud to recommend this bill to the House today.


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