Monday, 24 June 2013
Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013. This bill will add further regulatory burden on sponsors using the 457 visa program. I also believe that this bill is a politically based bill in an attempt to demonise foreign workers in this country and build support for the government in maybe some of its metropolitan areas. The 457 visa program is designed to quickly fill the skilled worker vacancies that emerge in different industries. I find it disturbing that the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship publicly claimed that there had been 10,000 cases of abuse of the 457 visa program yet he has provided no evidence to support these claims.
Particularly in regional Australia, the 457 visa program plays a vital role. In my electorate alone there are many vacancies filled by workers on 457s in the more obvious professions. We have got boilermakers and welders, spray painters, carpenters and auto-electricians playing a vital role. In Moree alone the engineering companies that provide infrastructure to the agriculture sector rely heavily on 457 visa workers. One company in particular is struggling to be able to meet the demand of infrastructure for the irrigation industry since the breaking of the drought three years ago in jobs in building irrigation infrastructure. These people are not taking work away from Australians.
Because of the already quite significant regulation and paperwork attached to 457 visa holders, it is preferable to employ Australian workers who have those necessary skills. But the reality is that many people with those skills do not want to work in regional Australia. Quite frankly, I cannot understand why. I could not think of working anywhere else. But that is the case. With the added competition from the mining sector, many Australian workers with those skills have gone into that sector.
The changes this government has made in the last three years to the criteria for 457 workers in the agricultural sector has meant that very few people have come in to work in the agricultural sector under the 457 program. With the removal of the category of farm overseer, it has made it almost impossible for farmers to sponsor workers under the 457 program.
As we speak here tonight, a lot of the work on the very large wheat crop that has been planted right through the wheat belt of New South Wales, right through my electorate, is being done by people here on holiday visas—the 417s, the backpackers—who come and spend a couple of months working on a farm, driving a tractor, planting wheat or harvesting wheat, planting cotton or picking cotton or something like that. That in itself has created a problem in filling the worker gap in regional Australia. Indeed, I have been working with former immigration minister Bowen and shadow minister Morrison, and with a large committee in the northern part of my electorate, on providing a pathway for some of these holiday visa workers to actually transition to a more permanent footing.
Either you have a liking or an aptitude for farm work and a liking for living in that sort of location or you do not. Unfortunately, for many of those people who do get to work on these large farms and find they do have an aptitude for it and would like to stay for perhaps a year or two, that option is not open to them because it does not fit into the 417 category. So there is still room in regional Australia for a more direct pathway.
I think the New South Wales Department of Health is one of the largest employers of 457 visa workers, nurses and trained health workers in the aged-care sector right across regional Australia. This is a real issue. I was absolutely flabbergasted when I heard that this government was performing this onslaught of negativity and attack on 457 visa workers. I just wonder how many of these workers the government knows and whether it knows or understands what they are doing. I have worked with a lot of people here on 457 visas from China, India and other countries and have been in admiration of the dedication and skill that they put into the job and also their determined efforts to undertake courses to improve their levels of English and hard work that they put into becoming members of the community.
One of the 457 visa people in my electorate, who came here as a radio announcer, has worked for some years in western New South Wales at a station that struggles to keep other staff there for any length of time and has provided a great service.
457 workers are working in specialised earthmoving sales—the sorts of jobs that perhaps you are thinking 457 workers would not be doing. That is happening right across regional Australia. As it is, the productivity of regional Australia at the moment is being severely hampered by the lack of skilled workers, without impacting on us any further. Many family businesses are under a lot of stress because they are actually carrying the extra burden of trying to meet deadlines or getting crops planted or harvested using family members. Indeed, it is leading to a lot of excessive hours being worked and having a real effect on the quality of life of people in those areas.
I would also like to touch on the unemployed people who I have in my electorate. I think it is important in this debate that we do not forget those people. At the moment, many of the people who are unemployed do not have the skills necessary to fill these jobs that the 457 visa workers are doing. But we must not forget them and we must not just rely on overseas workers. In many instances, the 457 visa workers are role models through their skills, ability and work ethic to some of the people transitioning into work from long-term unemployment, particularly to the Aboriginal communities and workers in western New South Wales. We must keep working as a community and as a government. We must keep striving to provide opportunities, particularly for our young ones, and encourage them to stay at school, get a trade, become skilled and take on these roles.
Indeed, the Clontarf Foundation, which has been operating for 15 years in Western Australia and which has just opened four academies in the last 12 or 15 months in my electorate, is doing just that. The Clontarf foundation has been mentoring young Aboriginal boys and men right through school into trades and employment, ultimately giving them a life that many of us take for granted.
I am not going to stand here and say that 457 visa workers are the answer to all our problems, but what I am saying is that they play a vital role. I think this legislation is horrendous in the fact that it is not addressing an issue that is genuine. This is, I believe, quite a xenophobic and racist piece of legislation designed to apply the prejudices of some sections of our community in an attempt to garner support for the government. This comes at the expense of not only these workers who play a vital role in the Australian workforce, but the many businesses throughout Australia, particularly in regional Australia, that rely on these 457 workers to provide a vital role. This applies not only in their businesses but in providing an economic base for regional Australia and the country as a whole.
I rise to support the Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013. I do so because I think this bill is common sense and good legislation. I say that because all of us in this place have had to face mums and dads and people who have come to see us in our electorate offices talking to us about their children who perhaps are unemployed or struggling to find work. We have heard about cases of people who have degrees, finished certain technical schools, their apprenticeships completed and are still looking for work.
This bill ensures that we in this place as legislators and members of parliament do all that we can to ensure that people who are unemployed for whatever reason and people who are fresh out of school or trade centres are given every single opportunity and every single chance to be employed.
Of course, there will be a requirement for 457 visas. There are many occupations that cannot be filled. I just heard the member for Parkes talk about nurses and medical staff. There is a shortage in many areas where we need to fill those skills, and the only way we can do so is by bringing people in from overseas.
I chaired the health and ageing committee inquiry into overseas-trained doctors. There we saw firsthand many areas around the country where they just could not get medical doctors and medical staff. Of course, in those situations they are granted the 457 visas—and so they should be, just like any other industry or any other employer who has tried all that they can to employ locally.
This legislation is good legislation, and I think the majority of Australians would support it. It talks about ensuring that we employ locally, that we employ local people were the positions can be filled and, if they cannot be filled, that is fine. No-one is putting a stop to the 457 visas. No-one is saying to industry out there that they are not to employ anyone from overseas. All it is asking them for is the requirement that they have done all that is possible to employ someone locally or someone who is unemployed and looking for work here in Australia. I do not think that is unreasonable. I do not think for one moment that that it is unreasonable.
As I said earlier, I have faced mums and dads every week who come into my electorate office to tell me that they have an unemployed son or daughter who has been seeking work and cannot get work. Sometimes, they may not be suitable for the particular positions that they are applying for, but I think it is very reasonable and sensible that an employer shows that they have done all they can to employ locally and to employ someone from their particular region or from their particular city.
As I said, there are skill shortages in Australia. There have been skill shortages for sometime now. We have the booming mining industry that is sucking tradespeople into the mining industry. It astounds me to hear those opposite talk about the skills shortages when for 11 years, whilst they were in government, they did absolutely nothing to ensure that we train people to fill those skill shortages.
We know that there are now more trades training places. Just about every secondary school in my electorate is training people to learn skills, and I have some great schools within my electorate. We hope that in the future we will be able to fill those shortages that we face today with our locally trained people. We need to train our people here to ensure that we can fill those positions.
I know that this legislation looks at ensuring that employers do all that they can to employ people locally, but I would go a step further. If you do want a 457 visa, you should employ a couple of apprentices as well to ensure that you are securing the future for your industry. That would be very reasonable. That is something you would want to do if you are a business: to employ people in apprenticeships so you can fill the shortages that you can perhaps see in the future. That is why I think it is sensible legislation and I will be supporting it as this side of the House has, of course, proposed it.
As I said, I think most people can see that this is sensible legislation and that all it is asking is that employers do whatever they can to employ locally; and, if they cannot, that is fine. No one is saying you cannot have a 457 visa. I think that is reasonable. When I speak to parents and I look them in the eye and they tell me that they have children who are unemployed, I want to know that the legislation that we put in this place does everything possible and everything within our means to ensure that we employ people here in this country who are unemployed.
Before the member for Hindmarsh leaves the chamber might I—lament the fact that he has now gone! But I will take up the point he was making, frequently, that there are people who have skills who cannot get jobs. They do not always offer their skills where the jobs are, though, and that is one of the major difficulties we have in our society. Very often, employers who wish to engage employees, and want them if they are suitably trained and qualified, find that they are not available in the area in which they are working and they seek people from further afield—and it is more expensive and more difficult to seek people further afield.
I wonder why this matter is being progressed and I wonder why, particularly when I note the amendment moved by member for Cook, the government is continuing to press this matter. I want to take these matters up in some detail, if I may. The amendment calls for the consideration of this bill, the Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013, not to be concluded by the House until a:
1. full research report is completed by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship on the true incidence and nature of abuses and non-compliance within the 457 visa program in comparison to other programs to substantiate the requirement for the measures proposed in the bill;
2. full consultation program with industry and other stakeholders has been conducted by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship on the impacts of the measures contained in the bill; and
3. regulatory impact statement has been completed by the Government in relation to Schedule 2 of the bill relating to the proposed labour market testing regime as required by the Office of Best Practice Regulation and the statement be submitted to the Parliament."
That does not seem unreasonable to me, and yet the matter is being progressed in a period in which we shortly expect to have an election. I would expect that if this matter is being progressed on substantial grounds then the research would have been available and the matter substantiated.
I come to this matter having had an interest over a long period of time in the 457 visa regime. I was in the parliament back in 1995 when a former Labor government commissioned a gentleman whom I know well, Neville Roach, to undertake a study in relation to temporary skilled visas and what the requirement should be. He handed down a report which bears his name, the Roach report, on business temporary entry and it was accepted by the former Labor government. These visa classes were implemented following that recommendation; in fact, the Labor government at the time was strongly of the view that we needed the streamlined access to skilled temporary workers from overseas. Senator Bolkus said in the Senate when he was the minister:
The policy objective for this government is to place Australia, through our rules and regulations in this temporary migration area, in a position to benefit both now and into the future.
He went on to say:
… it is crucial that we ensure smooth movement of key personnel into and out of this country.
That report was accepted, they did not remain in office all that much longer, and I accepted the recommendations and implemented the report. I noted in a speech that I made in the House of Representatives in September 2006 that it was interesting that in the eight years of the operation of the new scheme resulting from that report that the then Labor opposition leader had 'no complaint' at all.
What occurred at a later point in time was that they then started to raise some issues and I might say that that prompted me to look more closely at the way in which the 457 scheme was operating at that time and whether there were really any reasons for complaint. The reality was that, in the economic circumstances of the time, there had been a substantial increase in the number of visas issued, but it has been acknowledged, even in this debate, that there is an ebb and flow in relation to these matters: the more prosperous the economy the greater the need and when there is a downturn it tends to come off. I had to say at that time that in the context of the lowest unemployment rate in 30 years, a jobs growth of 180,000 and the longest period of sustained economic growth that we had experienced in Australia, it was not unreasonable to see an increase. I made the point that the visa was demand driven; its size did not fluctuate with the strength of the economy, and I made some comments about research that had been undertaken at that time.
The research showed that the program had been highly positive in its impact on living standards of Australians and the Commonwealth and state budgets. Access Economics had done a considerable amount of work in relation to the visa class and had been able to substantiate those benefits. The sponsored temporary business workers were seen to raise the average productivity of Australian workers. They provided fiscal benefits to the Commonwealth, state and territory budgets. The intake of about 37,100 persons a year—that is, 22,000 principal applicants and their dependants—provided benefits to the standard of living of existing Australian residents of $43 per year. So we can see that this class of visas benefited Australia generally, and I think that is the point that needed to be made. It had brought people to Australia with skills that we needed. The primary resource countries then were the United Kingdom, India and South Africa. Managers, professionals and associate professionals were the largest users of the 457 class and registered nurses were the largest denominated occupation at that time.
So the point that I have made in relation to the scheme as it operated when I was minister, and that was over an eight-year period, was that there were few complaints. There have been something of the order of 6,471 business sponsorships monitored to test their compliance with the sponsored undertakings during 2005-06. Of those, 1,700 business sponsors were also site visited on a basis of targeted risk profiling, and they were random samples. At that period, they found some 15 allegations with four investigations finding that allegations were proven. The department was investigating 200 employers in relation to potential issues of abuse of the 457 class.
It certainly was the case under my stewardship that there was a conscientious checking of the way in which these visas were dealt with. There was no evidence of any substantial abuse. It was seen to be positive and beneficial to the Australian community as a whole. I have had a look at the situation since that time. I noted recently in the work that was done on this matter that the number of applicants for temporary skilled migration had again risen to levels that were much higher than they were before the so-called economic crisis.
In 2010-11, the number of lodgements of 457 primary visa applicants, not including dependants, was 39 per cent higher than the previous year. So with changes in economic circumstances, we have seen that that number again rose—nothing unusual; that is what has happened in the past. We saw that the top industries of primary visa applicants were health and social assistance classes of 13 per cent, other services 12.4 per cent and instruction 12.3 per cent. It seems to me that there was nothing particularly out of the ordinary in relation to those matters.
There have been further reviews. When Kevin Andrews was the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, in 2007 the government announced several reforms to the 457 program, including civil penalties for employers who had breached the law and greater powers for the department and the Office of Workplace Services to investigate. An English language requirement was also introduced into the program in July 2007 to ensure that overseas workers were able to contribute effectively to the workplace.
The point that I make is that it seems quite clear that there was a continuing monitoring of the program to ensure that it was proceeding satisfactorily. In April 2008, even the Labor government announced the establishment of a major review to look into 457 visas—the Deegan review. As part of that, three issues papers were released for comment. The review found that concerns about exploitation of 457 visas was evident to a degree and it recommended a number of changes aimed at improving the system. Those changes were announced by the then minister in 2009. That included a market based minimum salary for all new and existing 457 visa holders from September 2009 to ensure that people were not exploited. It included that conditions were not to be undermined.
Prior to this, 457 visas were required to be paid according to a minimum salary level set by the government which was below market salary rates. It increased the existing minimum language requirements for trade occupations and chefs. It progressively introduced formal skills assessment from 1 July 2009 from high-risk countries as to certain trade occupations such as chefs. It introduced requirements that employers seeking to access the 457 program had a strong record of demonstrated commitment of employing local labour and non-discriminatory employment practices. And there was the development of training benchmarks to clarify existing requirements on employers to demonstrate a commitment to training local labour, and there was the extension of the labour agreement pathway to all ASCO 5 to 7 occupations to ensure employers using the program to access those occupations satisfied obligations of local training and employment.
Why do I mention all these matters? It is because the 457 visa class has been the subject of continuing review and monitoring. One has to ask: why, without any justification, without any inquiry, without any further evidence, after implementing changes recommended by this government as a follow-up to the Deegan report, are we being asked to look at these issues again? It is not unreasonable to ask why this is occurring. I think it is occurring for base political reasons that have very, very little validity.
Acting Deputy Speaker Murphy, I am sure you know that in relation to the government's management of border issues there is a good deal of concern in the community amongst people who have migrated to Australia from a wide range of backgrounds—and they say, 'I came through the front door' or 'I came the right way'—and who ask this question: 'Why are we losing control of our borders and why are a whole lot of people arriving here who have not been through similar processing?' That is the concern that they have. That is the matter that the government ought to be addressing, but the difficulty we have is that they have found no way of substantially dealing with those issues because they are not prepared to adopt the measures that were known to have worked under the Howard government.
What we have seen is the attempt to divert people's attention from those concerns which I believe are real and substantial by creating an issue in relation to 457 visas that does not exist. That is the reason that I believe this legislation should not be supported. The amendment is one that is real because it calls for research before any further changes are adopted. Given the way in which these issues have been dealt with in the past, I do not consider that that is at all unreasonable.
I rise today to speak on the Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013. Admittedly, there is some confusion here on this side of the House: along with my colleagues, I was under the impression that Australia's biggest immigration issue was the fact that 734 boats have been intercepted entering Australian waters since the Labor government came to power in 2007. But it appears that the Gillard Labor government may have missed those 734 boats. Those on the other side of the House seem to think that the 457 visa program is our most pressing immigration issue. Maybe you could tell them, Mr Deputy Speaker Murphy, that they should take time to speak to people in my electorate of Solomon and, indeed, in the Northern Territory. Territorians will tell you that recently there have been 19 illegal boats headed for the Top End, and that is more of a concern for my community than the 457 visa holders.
The Gillard Labor government are attempting to rush through this attack on our skilled migration program before the parliament rises, at the end of this week, oblivious to the public's outrage at the billions of dollars they have wasted on their own failed border protection policies. In their cover-up of this immigration disaster, the Labor government have belittled and harassed overseas workers. The Gillard Labor government have members of their own staff working on 457 visas, including in the Prime Minister's office. Talk about double standards!
I wonder how the Gillard Labor government's own overseas workers feel when the Prime Minister attempts to demonise and stereotype them at every turn? The Gillard Labor government's attacks on skilled migration is a desperate distraction from the biggest immigration issue we have faced—their failed border protection policies which have seen, as I have said, 734 boats with 44,946 people arrive unannounced in our waters.
Since Prime Minister Gillard assumed office three years ago today, there have been 38,340 illegal arrivals arrive here by boat. That is over half of my electorate and more than the entire population of the City of Palmerston. This chaos, disarray and absolute pandemonium is also met with great sadness and tragedy. It is horrific that over a thousand illegal arrivals have drowned while trying to reach our shore. These thousand people were led to believe that they could achieve a better way of life for their families by hopping on a leaky boat bound for Australia, only to meet their end on their way here.
The Labor government needs to look at the problem before they sink their teeth into the 457 visa program and rip it apart. As I said earlier, there are mixed messages among the rabble on the other side. The former minister for immigration, Mr Bowen, said on 3 September 2012:
The 457 visa allows businesses to employ overseas workers in designated skilled occupations only. The program cannot be used by a business as a substitute for training and employing Australian workers.
As I said, in the Territory we do things a little bit differently. Many business operators have told me that they rely very heavily on the 457 visa program to retain a skilled workforce in the midst of big demand from business and booming major projects around Darwin and Palmerston. Local business operators tell me that they are afraid of the Gillard Labor government's attack on any skilled migration program as they often struggle to fill positions within our local workforce.
One small business operator I spoke to recently has owned a business in Darwin for 20 years. She attributes the strength of her business success to the 457 visa program. She says that without this program it would have been extremely difficult for her to retain semiskilled workers. She told me that the 457 visa program provided both security and stability for her staff and her as an employer. Before she employed overseas workers she found it very difficult to find semiskilled workers to run her small business. With the number of major projects in the Territory at the moment it is becoming even more difficult for hard-working small businesses to compete for local workers against conditions and wages offered by larger corporations. The skilled migration program has allowed small business to access a workforce that can fill the gaps left in the local market by the major projects that are happening right across the Territory.
As you can imagine, this bill has generated only further unpredictability for small businesses in these uncertain economic times. The deep concern they feel is resonating throughout the coalition. After investigation into this legislation we have found some serious flaws within the bill, not the least the fact that it has no regulatory impact statement and there has been no proper consultation. You might find that very hard to believe, that the Labor Party is not consulting, but, believe me, it has happened. This bill contains a bizarre attempt to re-introduce labour market testing which operated from 1996 to 2001, when it was found to be highly ineffective, very expensive, a significant delay and one of many setbacks for employers' recruitment action.
I would like to share some more hypocrisy on the 457 visas from those on the other side. The Prime Minister's press release titled 'Changes to the ministry' in Canberra of 2 February 2013 stated:
As Immigration Minister, Senator Evans shaped the temporary and permanent skilled migration system to serve our economy and restored integrity to the 457 visa program.
Well, a lot has changed in a few months because now they are saying that it has been rorted and all sorts of other mixed messages.
We can all agree that what small business in Australia does not need is more red tape. This bill adds to the burden of regulation, obligations, compliance and enforcement on employer sponsors using the 457 visa program. This bill represents the Gillard Labor government's and the unions' scare campaign in an attempt to demonise foreign workers. Most concerning about this bill is that it is based on a false premise. The Gillard Labor government has completely manufactured numbers to suggest widespread abuse of the 457 visa program.
As I said, just a few months ago the Prime Minister was saying, and I will repeat that quote:
As Immigration Minister, Senator Evans shaped the temporary and permanent skilled migration system to serve our economy and restored integrity to the 457 visa program.
Under Labor, 457 skilled migration visa grants have grown to the highest level since its inception, so if any rorts have occurred they have occurred under Labor's watch.
Order! The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 34. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting. The member for Solomon will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.