Wednesday, 26 June 2013
Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013; Second Reading
It is my great pleasure to speak on the Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013. It has been a long and exhaustive debate—I did not think I would get a chance to speak because there were so many speakers before me. Of course one of those was the member for Canning who made some headlines when he accused the government of racism. I found that comment to be intemperate and obviously offensive but it also does not match my party's history.
My party and, in particular, Arthur Calwell, as the first immigration minister, gave this country the postwar migration scheme. Indeed, Calwell was the father of that scheme and he very famously made a ministerial statement to this House saying that we would have 22 million Australians by 2020. He brought millions to this country who settled and brought their skills, their innovation and their energy from a destroyed postwar Europe. They built the Snowy Mountains scheme, many of the railways and most of the postwar infrastructure that was put in place by the Curtin and Chifley governments—continued in large part by the Menzies government, no doubt about that.
Migration was a fundamental part of that postwar reconstruction, as it was called. If you look on Google and type in 'Arthur Calwell', a very old video will come up—it is a video now but it would have been a film back then—of Arthur Calwell saying, 'Give me the ships and I will bring the right type of people to this country.'
The member for Berowra should take it easy; he has a habit of interjecting. My party are the architects of postwar migration, and Arthur Calwell can rightly be seen as the architect of multicultural Australia. So much of his legacy has been diminished by people who want to simply reel off his responses as interjections in this place as some sort of evidence of racism when, in actual fact, he was, as I said before, the father of the postwar migration scheme, the father of multicultural Australia. At the heart of that scheme was that people would come here, have permanent residence, become citizens, work and bring their skills, their innovation, their ideas and their families to this country and make a permanent contribution to it
The 457 scheme does not do that. The 457 scheme is a guest worker program—that is what it is; that is what it has always been. I am not a fan of the scheme; I do not like it. I think in so many ways it does not do this country a service. The great trick of the conservatives has been to equate what is a guest worker scheme with skilled migration when the two things are quite different. The two things are different in this respect: your visa under 457 is linked to your job; lose your job, lose your visa. That is the way it works—lose your job and you have got 28 days to leave the country. That is how it works and that was implicit in its design in the Howard years.
The second thing I do not like about the 457 scheme is that much of the money that is earned here, much of the income, is remitted. It does not stay in this country; it is remitted to many countries abroad. Those remittances are good for these countries—there is no doubt about that. Many countries around the world rely on remittances, but it is not good for Australia to have the earnings of these people remitted to other countries. It does not stay in the country.
The last thing is the skills are also sent home. At least half of the people return after their visas have concluded and they take their skills, their innovation and what they have learnt with them. The other half stay. Why not have them stay in the beginning? Why not give them the security of permanent residence in the beginning? If they are good citizens, why not keep them?
As long as a person's visa is linked to their job, they will be forever vulnerable. That is the truth of the matter. Anybody who has ever been at a work site understands that implicitly. It is not surprising employers think these workers are great workers. They are great workers because they have to be, they do not have a choice. If your job is linked to your visa and you have a family that is reliant on your remittances, then you are in a vulnerable position. And if the boss says, 'Jump,' you will jump. If you talk to people who have had experience with these visas you will find employers are glowing in their appreciation of it—no doubt about that. But if you talk to the workers who work alongside them, there is often a great deal of sympathy for people on 457s, because they do not have that opportunity to raise an objection. They live with that fear, with that idea, that if they speak up, if they say anything to their boss, they could lose their job and thus lose their visa. I think that is at the very heart of what is a guest worker program.
We get a lot of rhetoric from the opposition about skills, and about how employers need these skills. But this scheme, the 457 scheme, does not serve the country in the long term. It serves it in the short term. It gives you a short-term solution to a skills problem. We all know there is a skills problem in this country. The fact that we cannot find enough doctors and nurses for our hospitals is a disgrace. The fact we cannot find enough diesel mechanics is a disgrace. But a 457 program, a guest workers scheme running indefinitely, just makes employers lazy. It does not give them any incentive to invest in skills. It does not give them any inducement to invest in skills if they know that they can just get another diesel mechanic—once one visa has concluded, they can just get another worker on another visa—and it makes them lazy about planning for the skills they need in the long term.
The 457 visa scheme provides no incentive for employers to drag people into the labour market who are currently outside of it, such as mature age workers and young workers. In my electorate, there would not be a week goes by that I do not meet a mature age worker who wants to work and cannot get a start, cannot get a job—and it is not for want of trying. The same could be said for young people as well. Often they cannot find a start, or they get the wrong start. This program, the 457 program, in the long term is lazy and it is counterproductive and it does not encourage skills formation. All of the skills that are brought to this country, or at least half of them, evaporate; they leave the country with the workers.
In my electorate I often see the by-product of what I call fast-food traineeships. People on both sides of parliament have got up in this House and talked about the extraordinary number of traineeships and the like, contracts of training, that have been occurring over the past 15 years or so, but so many of these traineeships come out of fast-food businesses. I see young people all the time signed up on a contract of service for a low training wage, and I think they get questionable benefits out of this in some sectors. Some of the traineeships are very good, but some of them are of very poor quality. It really saddens me that when I go to the trades school in my electorate—St Patrick's trade school—I hear of young people who want to sign up for an apprenticeship, but at some time in the past they have gone to a fast-food establishment and signed up to a training contract—and, of course, you only get one training contract. In effect they are denied a trade because at some point in the past they signed up, often without thinking about it too much, to a traineeship in fast food or in retail or in hospitality. There is a definite problem with the quality of some of these traineeships. That is another area that we have to look at. We have to make sure the money the government puts in for skills training actually gets used for training in the skills where we have real shortages: diesel mechanics, doctors and nurses, and all of the classifications on the list for 457 visas.
In summarising my views, I think the 457 scheme should not be confused with skilled migration, and it is certainly not a long-term solution; it is a bandaid. And if those opposite think they can fix our skills problem by making this scheme even easier to utilise for employers, all the while engaging in dark partisanship on a whole range of other migration matters, they have another think coming. If they think they can lower the standards of this guest worker scheme and make it easier for employers to bring foreigners to this country to work and that the Australian public will just stand by and give a bit of a golfers clap to that, they have another think coming. They must have rocks in their heads, particularly when, as I said before, so many Australians are looking for work and cannot find it.
As I said before, the details of this bill are not all that I would want them to be. I would want a much stronger response to the 457 program, and I have expressed that view in my party room. But this bill does have a lot of merit. The first one is that it requires employers to undertake labour market testing. Labour market testing is as simple as advertising for a job to see if you can find any Australians before you bring in someone from overseas to take a job. It does not seem like that much of an onerous requirement to me to advertise, to see if you can find an Australian to take the job. It does not seem difficult. In fact, I think most Australians would think that is a fair thing to do. This bill gives the minister some mechanisms to make sure the sponsorship obligations can be enforced and that they are actually undertaken by employers. That is done through enforceable undertakings and making sure that employers actually meet the training requirements and the like of having these visas.
Most importantly, it allows the Fair Work Ombudsman to monitor and investigate compliance and sponsorship obligations, and that takes the number of inspectors from about 30 to about 300. One of the big problems with this program at the moment is that the good employers who follow the rules and do the right thing get a pat on the back, but the employers who do not do the right thing get away with it because there is inadequate inspection. This bill provides inspectors. I would have thought that that is a pretty basic requirement: that if you are going to have a program you make sure there is compliance in it—a pretty standard thing, I would have thought.
The bill provides—and I think this is terribly important—the visa holder with additional time to find a job if they lose their job. It amends the Migration Regulations 1994 to extend the period from 28 days to 90 consecutive days for visa holders who lose their job and want to look for another one.
This bill is a pretty moderate attempt at cleaning up a program which I think has serious deficiencies, which in the long term does not serve the country's interests. As I said before, I would prefer to see the back of this scheme. If people are going to migrate to this country, I would prefer to see them come here as permanent residents, that they bring their families, that they settle and that we keep the skills and innovation and their entrepreneurialism in this country.
To speak to some of the principles behind this bill, the Greens have argued for a long time that in this country we need to share the benefits of what may well be a once-in-a-generation mining boom fairly. We have argued that in respect of the mining tax. We have ended up with a mining tax where, if it is spreading the benefits of a boom, I reckon it is spread so thinly that most people really cannot taste it because, up until recently, we have had a situation this year where the mining tax has brought in less revenue than the government was taking from single parents by cutting their payments. We have consistently argued for a proper mining tax, for one that would allow us to fund education and health and to set Australia up for the future.
We have also argued that with respect to the jobs that flow from the mining boom in particular. We are in a situation where the owners of all our mineral wealth—the Australian people—are not getting a fair return. When we have a situation where 83 per cent of the profits are going overseas, as is the case at the moment, there is an argument for fixing that. But, more so, the jobs that have been generated from the minerals that all Australians own should also ensure a proper return to our country. That means opportunities for people to work and it also means making sure that we use some of the money for training the next generation so that we do not just have people come and work and share the benefits of the wealth and then leave. We do not want to wake up when the mining boom is over to find that all the skills have gone with it. That has been the real risk of the government's 457 program. Over a number of years I have certainly heard many stories of that program having been abused—of people coming in as 'project managers' without any requisite qualification and essentially being put to work doing any task. That obviously affects local workers, because local workers are being undercut.
If you bring someone in from overseas, they are probably less likely than an Australian worker to know how to enforce their rights in the Australian legal system and they are probably less likely to know what they are entitled to. That affects the local workers, but it also affects the workers who have come in on 457s. They have been open to significant exploitation. We have seen significant reports of that, and that is, in part, the reason the Greens have been pushing for the government to ratify the international convention on the rights of migrant workers, because abuse of this scheme hurts everyone. It hurts the people that come over here who can find themselves essentially in a form of indebted slavery and it hurts the people who do not get jobs because they are being undercut.
We have been arguing for some time that, up until the introduction of this bill, we were getting the worst of both worlds. We were getting rhetoric that verged on xenophobic, without any meaningful action. The Greens argue that we need to dial down the rhetoric, but turn up the meaningful protections for local employment. So I am pleased that the principle we have been advocating for some time, which is advertising first, has been adopted and is recognised in this bill.
One concern that we have expressed is that the protections in this bill seem to stop at workers who require degree qualifications or other similar qualifications. When there are reports in areas like nursing and engineering, where we are coming off the back of a downturn in mining and with manufacturing also under pressure, those people ought to be entitled to exactly the same protection. That is something we have advocated for strongly.
I also want to put on the record that this is not a situation where we are advocating that there should be no-one or only a limited number of people from overseas coming here to work. Having people from overseas coming and working in Australia on temporary or long-term arrangements is unquestionably a good thing. In some areas—for example, education and science—we should make sure that we remain open to people with significant expertise coming and spending time in this country. It is good for them and it is good for us.
There is also a good argument that when people are legitimately here on holiday or other arrangements they are entitled to perform some kind of work while they are here, provided that that does not turn into a backdoor way of abusing the system. Provided that it does not, it benefits those people and it benefits us. Some people are lucky enough ultimately to translate their work here on a temporary visa into citizenship, and I have met many of those people, including in my electorate of Melbourne. But at the end of the day our primary responsibility as the Australian parliament should be to ensure that we look after the Australian people. If that means standing up to big business and saying, 'No, you can't get away with whatever you want; you need to spread some of the benefits of this boom and of operating a successful company in Australia to local workers,' then we should insist on that.
Aside from those issues of areas where the bill ought to be improved, as I have been advocating for some time, I am pleased that this bill was brought before the parliament and that we will have an opportunity to pass it before parliament rises.
I thank the members for their contribution to the second reading debate on this bill. I remind the House that the Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013 amends the Migration Act to reinforce the importance of overseas skilled workers to the Australian economy while ensuring there are employment and training opportunities for Australian citizens and permanent residents.
This bill will require employers to first look to the Australian labour market before seeking to sponsor workers from overseas by requiring 457 visa sponsors to undertake labour market testing in a manner consistent with Australia's international trade obligations. This will ensure that the subclass 457 visa program is used only to address genuine skills shortages when local labour is unavailable. In my second reading speech I indicated that the time frame for undertaking labour market testing would be within six months; however, after further consideration, I have proposed that four months would be a more appropriate time frame. Six months may be too long a period in a dynamic labour market where conditions can change rapidly.
The bill also builds upon the sponsorship framework introduced in 2009 as a result of the worker protection act. It will enshrine in the Migration Act the kinds of sponsorship obligations to be prescribed in the migration regulations. The bill will also build on the current enforcement regime by expanding the suite of options available to the department to take action against sponsors who are found not to be meeting their obligations. In addition to the civil penalty provisions introduced in 2009 and the administrative sanctions to bar a sponsor or cancel the approval of a person as a sponsor, the minister may now also consider enforceable undertakings. This will be an important tool to encourage sponsor compliance.
The bill further builds on the capacity of the government to monitor and investigate compliance with the temporary work sponsored visa program by expanding inspector powers to the Fair Work Ombudsman. The bill will also deliver a more socially just outcome for visa holders by extending the time that they can seek another sponsor or arrange their affairs to leave Australia from 28 to 90 days.
I turn now to some of the points that were raised in the debate on the bill. Members of the opposition have suggested there is not sufficient evidence to warrant changes to the current arrangements. I would refute that. The 457 scheme is intended to fill job vacancies where there are skills shortages. There is extensive empirical and anecdotal evidence suggesting that the 457 program is not being used for that purpose. Departmental records of 457 breaches underestimate the problem because there are 32 inspectors to investigate, monitor and enforce breaches of 108,810 457 visas. Over the past three years, visits, sanctions and warnings fell by 80, 60 and 40 per cent respectively. Question 7 of the survey published by the Migration Council asked, 'Do you find it difficult to hire workers from the local labour market?' If they asked, they were told 'local' meant Australia. There were three options: 'yes, very', 'yes, somewhat' and 'no'. Fifteen per cent answered no. Fifteen per cent of employers would have had no difficulty in hiring locally but did not.
As at 30 April, there were 108,810 457 visa holders. That represents a 20.4 per cent growth over the previous year. For the whole economy, employment is growing at around one per cent per annum. There was once a close correlation between the job vacancies for the whole economy and the 457 applications. These used to track closely together. Since May 2011, vacancies have declined or remained static while 457 application rates have continued to trend upwards.
Consider the pattern of 457 nominations and job vacancy advertisements in the past 12 months for the most common occupations for 457 visas. Cafe manager nominations are up 189 per cent and ads are down three per cent. For chefs nominations are up 33 per cent and ads are down six per cent. For call centre managers nominations are up 226 per cent and ads are down 14 per cent. For information technology nominations are up seven per cent and ads are down 24 per cent. For accountants nominations are up 21 per cent and ads are down 16 per cent. The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations's own rating for the occupation of accountants suggests there is no shortage. For accommodation and food services there has been a 101 per cent increase in primary applications lodged in this industry in the year to 30 April at a time when vacancies for cooks have been falling. Cook is currently the top sponsored occupation for 457 visas.
Consider these two facts for New South Wales. To 30 March this year, 730 primary applications were lodged for cooks in New South Wales. This is a 99 per cent increase on the same period in the previous program year. Over the same period apprenticeship commencements in commercial cookery were down 12 per cent in New South Wales compared to the same period in the last financial year. Over the past four years in retail aggregate employment has decreased by a bit more than one per cent; but, compared to just one year ago, applications for 457s for retail have increased by 69 per cent.
During debate, again and again the opposition said that labour market testing would present an additional burden upon business in Australia. The government rejects this as most businesses already advertise vacancies to seek to recruit Australian citizens and permanent residents. This bill simply seeks to ensure that those employers who do not do the right thing will first look to recruit locally.
The opposition has also persisted with what I believe is a contemptible debate which suggests that the government is seeking to demonise foreign workers. Far from the government endangering social cohesion, the opposition has fuelled a debate based on false notions. The government has always said and will continue to say that the subclass 457 program is a valuable supplement to the domestic labour pool when used appropriately. For the opposition to generate ill will in this way is, quite frankly, absurd and I take personal offence at it. The opposition has also suggested that the absence of the regulatory impact statement was an issue notwithstanding the fact that the majority of elements in this bill did not require a regulatory impact statement, as advised by the Office of Best Practice Regulation. While I agree that an impact statement is desirable, in this case the impact upon business because of the labour market testing element, which is the only element requiring an RAS, will be minor while the outcome for Australians seeking employment and for visa holders requiring protections will be improved.
The opposition said there is insufficient consultation. I have consulted with my ministerial colleagues, the Ministerial Advisory Council on Skilled Migration, and my department has consulted with relevant Commonwealth agencies throughout the development of this bill. Consultations will be ongoing as the measures in this bill are implemented. The opposition has said that the existing legislative framework provides sufficient options to take action against sponsors who do the wrong thing. By tightening the sponsoring obligations and by enhancing the penalty framework by including enforceable undertakings, the integrity of the subclass 457 will be improved. This can only benefit Australians searching for work and protect vulnerable visa holders from unscrupulous employers.
I refer to the member for Lyne, who I have always felt has engaged on matters genuinely. I respectfully disagree, however, with his remarks that it is all about resources and enforcing the current provisions. The advice I have received is that we cannot enforce some of the provisions, that the undertakings are not enforceable. Insofar as the resources are concerned, as I have indicated, we have announced a very significant increase by the use of the Fair Work inspectorate officers.
I also refer specifically to the contribution from the member for Canning. I found that inflammatory and insulting insofar as he attempts to attack my motives, particularly in relation to believing that in any way I would act in a manner that was discriminatory against anybody of a particular race. I found it highly offensive. I also found it somewhat odd because he was chair of a parliamentary inquiry that recommended in 2007 that there be a trial for labour market testing when he was still a chair and when the Howard government was still in government. He did suggest only a trial and he did focus on a limited number of occupations, but in fact on that occasion there were 58,000 visa applicants. Yet, as someone who got up only a few days ago to challenge the motives and the cogency of our argument, he himself was chair of a committee that had recommended a trial for labour market testing.
Finally, I would like to thank all of those who I have not referred to who have contributed. This is a very important debate in this place. I understand why there would be different views but I think that these improvements are important. The bill acknowledges the benefits of the temporary sponsored skilled migration program while recalibrating the legislative settings to ensure that the intent of the program—namely to temporarily fill genuine skilled vacancies—is achieved in practice. I commend the bill to the House.