Monday, 11 September 2023
Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023; Second Reading
I rise to make my contribution to the Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023. The Albanese Labor government is a government for workers. From raising wages, to improving industrial relations, the government is delivering for workers. Every worker in Australia should expect to have their rights respected and to be free of exploitation. This government intends to pursue this goal without exception. The exploitation of workers' rights is a threat to all workers' rights. Exploitation brings down wages and worsens working conditions. Exploitation damages our national reputation and is a threat to national values. That's why this government is taking action to protect vulnerable migrant workers in this country.
This legislation is addressing recommendations made in a report by the Migrant Workers' Taskforce, a report that was made to the previous government in March 2019 and that the Albanese government is now taking action on. This report was initially commissioned in response to revelations published about the significant and widespread wage theft occurring across multiple industries by employers underpaying migrant workers. It's a national embarrassment, as a result of the decade of inattention by the previous government. According to the report, almost half of all temporary migrant workers may be underpaid in their employment. Migrant workers are especially vulnerable to exploitation due to issues such as language barriers, financial limitations and a lack of access to support and information about industrial relations. Unfortunately, some employers have tried to take advantage of these vulnerabilities. They misrepresent the worker's rights and ignore their own responsibilities.
I do understand that there will be discussions as to how many of these offences could be considered accidental and that perhaps some of them were the result of honest mistakes. However, I'll quote the taskforce chair from the report's overview:
Wage underpayment may be inadvertent, but the outcome is no different as to when it is deliberate.
Theft is theft, and ignorance is little consolation for the victims. This government will endeavour to make sure that the law is administered fairly and equitably and that every offence has a consequence.
Unfortunately, this abuse is not limited to wage theft. The Migrant Workers' Taskforce detailed the many different forms that this exploitation can take. These include, but are not limited to, pressuring workers to work beyond the restrictions of a visa, such as student visa work limits; failing to provide workplace entitlements, such as paid leave and superannuation; avoiding tax, through the use of cash payments; not paying workers for training; not maintaining safe working conditions; unfairly dismissing workers; misclassifying workers as independent contractors instead of employees; making unfair deductions from wages for accommodation, training, food or transport—and these are perhaps some of the worst ones—threatening to hold a person's visa so that it would be cancelled by authorities; withholding a visa holder's passport; or requiring migrant workers to use and pay for substandard onsite accommodation.
The rights to worker safety and to be treated fairly are things that Australian workers have fought hard to obtain and maintain as a basic standard for work in this country. We cannot and will not allow these basic rights and conditions to be circumvented, which is why the government introduced the bill to parliament. The bill is delivering on two key recommendations of the report from the Migrant Workers Taskforce. First:
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.
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.
This bill implements these two recommendations. Through this bill, the Albanese Labor government will establish a new criminal offence and civil penalties to deter employers from using a visa condition or status to pressure and exploit their employees.
We will also be increasing the maximum criminal and civil penalties for all current and proposed work related offences and provisions in the Migration Act. These penalties will be almost tripled, with civil penalties of up to $99,000 for individuals and $490,000 for bodies corporate. The message this government is sending is clear: there will be no more profit from exploiting vulnerable workers. This is a sensible decision and in the best interests of everyone. The reputation of Australian employers is tarnished by those who ignore their responsibilities. This will help restore the confidence among multiple sectors of industry, and it will help those employers who are already doing the right thing and doing a good job.
This bill will also carefully extend the prohibition power to include breaches of the Fair Work Act and the Migration Act. It will ensure workplace relations law and migration law are working together to protect workers and penalise those employers who don't abide by the law. This will also include breaches of compliance notices and enforceable undertakings. A safe workplace is a better workplace—better for workers and better for Australia.
To ensure these laws are properly complied with, the government is strengthening the Australian Border Force. The Albanese government is creating additional tools for the ABF, such as a new compliance notice and enforceable undertaking powers. The government is providing the Australian Border Force with $50 million over the next four years, to provide them with extra resources needed to investigate and enforce compliance in all areas of our immigration system.
The legislation will penalise those who exploit the system but will protect those who are being exploited. Previously, under the Migration Act, it was a criminal offence to breach a work related visa condition. Unfortunately, this legislation only served to deter workers from speaking up, because they feared criminal sanctions. Employers could also use the threat of reporting workers to authorities in order to silence and therefore control them. This government is moving to ensure that the legislation cannot be used as a means of intimidation or a cudgel against innocent workers. The government has taken its duties and responsibilities seriously, while maintaining the insight to be able to distinguish the victims from the perpetrators.
This bill is just part of a range of measures that this government is taking to prevent and end the exploitation of those who come to Australia on temporary visas. In preparing this bill, this government has consulted widely with members of the public, unions, industries and researchers, but we are also currently engaging on complementing measures to help people speak up about exploitation in their workforce. This includes exploring the possibility of a whistleblower visa and the implementation of a firewall between the employment regulator and the Department of Home Affairs.
I would especially like to thank those unions who've stood up for migrant workers, such as the National Union of Workers. These offences and crimes affect all of us, and it is our responsibility to look out for one another and call out abuse when it happens.
This government has made supporting workers its cornerstone. We've been making improvements constantly and consistently, across a range of sectors, to create better conditions for everyone, and this legislation before the House today is another step in the right direction. We recognise that it is a government's duty to protect and empower those who are most vulnerable. I commend the bill to the House.