Monday, 11 September 2023
Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023; Second Reading
I thank those who have contributed to this debate. The exploitation of vulnerable workers is corrosive. Exploitation hurts all Australians: businesses who do the right thing; Australian workers, whose wages and conditions are undercut—it's a handbrake on wages growth—and of course those workers who themselves are mistreated and exploited. For these reasons we find the exploitation of migrant workers abhorrent to our sense of what is right and fair. This bill shows the Albanese government is serious about tackling exploitation. This bill includes measures to improve the visa system and enforcement regime to better address migrant worker exploitation. This bill will strengthen employer compliance and help to ensure law-abiding Australian employers are not undercut by unscrupulous competitors. This bill will implement recommendations 19 and 20 of the report of the Migrant Workers' Taskforce and includes several additional measures to address barriers that prevent exploited temporary migrant workers from speaking out and seeking support.
This bill includes three offences to address the misuse of migration rules to exploit migrant workers. If passed, it will be a criminal offence to use a worker's visa status, including unlawful status, or a future work related visa requirement to coerce or unduly pressure a person into accepting an exploitative worker arrangement. Together the new offences penalise unscrupulous employers for taking advantage of vulnerabilities associated with the migration rules. The prohibition measure will help to protect temporary migrant workers from employers who've engaged in serious, deliberate or repeated noncompliance with their obligations. This measure demonstrates the Albanese government is committed to protecting workers from employers who've broken the trust of our community. The increases in penalties reflect the significant damage the actions of unscrupulous employers can have on Australia's visa program integrity and public confidence in our migration system more broadly. They've been set at a level designed to deter people from offending.
Enforceable undertakings and compliance notices are important new tools to ensure the Australian Border Force can promote compliance without resorting to legal proceedings, where this is appropriate. The aim is to reinforce a graduated approach to compliance and enforcement, working with people who seek to genuinely do the right thing, while reserving the strongest penalties for deliberate, repeated and serious breaches. Section 235 of the Migration Act makes it a criminal offence to breach a visa condition. This has undermined the ability of workers to seek recourse to their rights under certain workplace laws. This decision to remove it is consistent with recent amendments to the Fair Work Act which confirmed the national workplace relations system should apply to workers in Australia regardless of their immigration status. This is critical for the protection of all workers in our community. The bill also introduces an avoidance-of-doubt clause to resolve potential unintended consequences associated with breaches of work related visa conditions that may inadvertently contribute to the abrogation of employer responsibility to provide workplace rights and entitlements.
The final substantive measure included in this bill is the introduction of a power to permit the migration regulations to prescribe matters to be taken into account in a decision whether or not to cancel a visa under section 116 of the Migration Act, as well as the weight given to those matters. We will continue to work with stakeholders to find a solution that will effectively protect vulnerable workers within the broader context, delivering a well-managed migration program in the national interest. These goals are mutually reinforcing, and I am committed to ensuring this can happen. I intend to consider all advice in consultation with my colleagues, and together we will ensure the regulations provide necessary protections to encourage workers to come forward and report exploitation, while maintaining the integrity of our visa programs.
This bill creates new powers, new penalties and a new approach to tackling the exploitation of workers who hold a temporary visa in Australia. Alongside the measures in this bill, the government increased funding for immigration compliance in the 2023-24 budget. For too long the consequences of doing the wrong thing and the chances of getting caught have been far too small. Thank you to all those who participated in the Senate committee report on this bill. Our parliamentary process is always stronger when informed by deep engagement with the community. The government will be putting forward amendments to this bill in the Senate, touching on a number of those matters raised. I also thank the opposition for their in-principle support for the bill and look forward to further engagement with them and other members and senators as we progress these amendments.
So many workers who hold a temporary visa make a significant commitment when they leave their home to come to Australia. It is unconscionable that some employers target these very workers as cheap and exploitable labour. It's critically important for the government to demonstrate its strong commitment to addressing worker exploitation, because this is the right thing to do and because it is squarely in our national interest. We cannot build our nation on the back of exploitation. This bill deserves support.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.