House debates

Monday, 8 February 2016

Private Members' Business

Temporary Work Visas

11:26 am

Photo of Lisa ChestersLisa Chesters (Bendigo, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes:

(a) the ongoing media reports and Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) findings into the exploitation of Working Holiday visa (subclass 417) holders, Temporary Work (Skilled) visa (subclass 457) holders and international students;

(b) nationwide monitoring by the FWO has uncovered suspected exploitation in 20 per cent of 560 migrant Temporary Work (Skilled) visa (subclass 457) worker cases examined between October 2014 and January 2015;

(c) the FWO said 'migrant workers complaints of mistreatment had soared in recent years, and sponsorship breaches were often deliberate acts of exploitation by unscrupulous employers';

(d) exploitation by employers has been identified in various industries including but not limited to construction, hospitality, cleaning, food processing, agriculture, the marketing and promotions sector, privately owned childcare centres and kindergartens, shopping trolley collectors and postal service contractors;

(e) many of these workers are low paid and low skilled, and are on Temporary Work (Skilled) visas (subclass 457), Working Holiday visas (subclass 417) or student visas; and

(f) this unconscionable conduct is widespread and is creating a sub class of workers that does not just hurt the employees; it puts at risk the pay and working conditions of all Australians;

(2) acknowledges the:

(a) recent hard work of the FWO to monitor, investigate, and expose potential breaches of the work visa program and Australian workplace laws; and

(b) proactive role the Australian union movement has played to highlight and expose unconscionable conduct by some employers and industries exploiting temporary visa workers;

(3) condemns the Government's:

(a) inaction to immediately address and implement the findings of recent FWO reports in relation to this matter; and

(b) recent moves to relax regulations for bringing in temporary visa workers, instead of toughening the rules; and

(4) calls on the Government to:

(a) immediately strengthen the work visa safeguards it has deliberately relaxed to make it easier for companies to hire overseas workers; and

(b) ensure that Australia's work visa program has robust safeguards in place to protect all workers and is not being used as a back door avenue to source cheap labour.

Weekly, if not daily, we are hearing time and time again more media reports about the exploitation of workers who are here on temporary work visas, quite often as guest workers. Over the weekend there was more commentary about the horrible case of 7-Eleven workers. We heard in a Senate inquiry on Friday that about 20,000 workers are expected to have been underpaid by 7-Eleven franchisees but yet only 2,000 have come forward. In that inquiry on Friday many of the people involved on the wage fairness panel established by 7-Eleven, including Allan Fels, said that it was because of fear of coming forward. Workers that they had met with are intimidated, threatened with having their visas cancelled and with being deported, threatened with violence—one even spoke out about being beaten—for coming forward to complain about underpayments.

This is not an isolated incident. Since this government was elected there has been incident after incident reported in our media and incident after incident investigated by the Fair Work Ombudsman, yet what we have seen from this government has been inaction. When the Fair Work Ombudsman released their report last year where they found that one in five people that they audited who are here on 457 visas was being underpaid, this government did not act to clean up the area. They did not put in proper safeguards to protect these workers. Instead, they established what they called a ministerial working group to try to tackle this issue of worker exploitation.

What we learned today in the media is that this group has apparently only met three times, but a key member of the committee does not have any record of the meetings. The Minister for Justice cannot recall and, through freedom of information, does not have any records of attending this working group. This is not the actions of a government that is taking this issue seriously. There is a need for action in this area, not just to protect the overseas workers that we have here, whether they be workers on skilled visas, whether they be workers on backpacker visas—the 417 visas—or whether they be international students with work rights, but because they are also undermining Australian wages and conditions.

In this motion I particularly want to highlight the calls on government to immediately strengthen the work visa safeguards, not to relax them as they did when this government was first elected. Yes, it was two immigration ministers ago and, yes, the minister at that time is now the Treasurer—he has had two role changes—but, when Minister Morrison relaxed the safeguards, Labor said that it would result in more workers being exploited. Sadly, that appears to be the case.

The motion also calls for a visa system with robust safeguards in place to protect all workers to ensure that they are not being used as a backdoor avenue to source cheap labour—and that is what we are seeing. In the case of 7-Eleven, workers were being paid half pay instead of full pay. Workers have been forced to get ABNs to work in the cleaning industry in sham contracting arrangements, as we have seen in the case of Myers and other cases. We have seen workers involved in pizza delivery and trucking and even workers involved in working for Australia Post being exploited. These are just the high-profile cases that have been brought to the attention of the Australian media as well as the unions involved in these industries. The government should be condemned for their inaction to immediately address and implement the findings of the recent Fair Work Ombudsman's report. It is now February 2016 and the government have had this report since last year but have failed to act to implement its recommendations. Recent moves to relax regulations have seen more workers coming into this country and being exploited instead of a toughening up of the rules.

Any worker in this country should be treated with respect and dignity. At the moment, this is not being offered to people who are here as temporary workers. All workers in Australia should be treated the same and receive the same wages and conditions. The government must act to clean up this area.

Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (McMillan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion.

11:31 am

Photo of Keith PittKeith Pitt (Hinkler, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am absolutely delighted to speak on this motion moved by the member for Bendigo. I am also incredibly pleased to see her sudden interest in this issue—an issue, I might add, that has been going around in circles for literally decades. As the motion states, complaints have indeed soared, but that is only because awareness of the issue has increased with the coalition's action. It is this government that is taking action.

Since I was elected in 2013, I have been making a lot of noise about this exact problem. Where has the member for Bendigo been? Where have you been? Labor had six years in government and they did absolutely nothing—actually, that is not quite true. They had an another inquiry. They knew about the problems. There have been countless reports and inquiries to examine this issue over the years and they all say the same thing, but, as I have said time and time again, we do not need another review or inquiry; those resources would be better spent on enforcement action. Individually, agencies like the Fair Work Ombudsman were toothless tigers, but there is now better coordination with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, the Australian Federal Police and the Department of Employment and Training.

With the introduction of Taskforce Cadena in May last year, which is something that I lobbied long and hard for, with the unanimous support of my National Party colleagues, we are finally seeing action. Within a month of operating, the multi-jurisdictional task force was successful with a number of raids, catching 38 illegal workers. Following investigations by Taskforce Cadena, the Fair Work Ombudsman is now able to pursue one Emmanuel Bani, who is accused of underpaying 22 workers from Vanuatu to the tune of $77,649 for fruit- and vegetable-picking jobs in Queensland. Geoffrey and Jane Smith of the Bundaberg branch of the Australian South Sea Islander Association brought the plight of these men to my attention in 2014. I met with some of these workers and heard firsthand about the appalling way that they were treated. I referred the matter, and the departments of employment and immigration intervened to recover the men's passports and secure them work with a reliable employer. The unskilled seasonal workers program is closely monitored and there are safeguards in place to ensure agents know their obligations and workers know their rights. Agents must be registered. Where the real exploitation occurs is in cases where people have overstayed their visas or are working here illegally and the agents are not properly registered.

But, just as we are making some headway on stamping out rogue labour hire operators and ensuring that foreign workers are being treated fairly, we have proposed changes to the tax-free threshold. In his budget speech, the then Treasurer, Joe Hockey, said that from 1 July working holiday-makers, not seasonal workers, would lose the tax-free threshold of $18,200 and be taxed at 32½ per cent from the first dollar they earn. I wrote to the Treasurer and explained that local fruit and vegetable growers and backpacker hostels had expressed concern that this could be the nail in the coffin of the entire industry. Not only could this lead to a reduction in backpackers coming to Australia to work but it could force more workers and contractors into what I call the 'seedy underbelly'. One backpacker hostel, which employs about 100 backpackers per week during harvest time, said the proposed changes were 'casting dark shadows over the potential benefits that backpackers bring to Bundaberg'. Working holiday-makers are not just a travelling workforce; they are a vital component of our tourism industry. You can tell that the member for Bendigo does not understand the needs of the agricultural sector because, in my electorate, the electorate of Hinkler, growers require a large labour force of unskilled workers at short notice; otherwise the crops would sit and rot on the ground. Their whole season's income would be lost and possible future agreements with their buyers could be put in jeopardy.

We hear the member for Bendigo scaremongering about Australian jobs being taken, but this government has introduced measures to ensure Australian workers are given the first opportunity for employment. With the expansion of the seasonal worker program and the introduction of free trade agreements, employers must demonstrate that they have tested the Australian jobs market first. The member for Bendigo talks about the proactive role of the Australian union movement, and I acknowledge there is an important place in the workplace for the protection of workers' rights, but I can honestly say that, in my experience, the unions are only interested in representing their members. They refer large numbers of exploited workers through to my office, saying they cannot help them because they are not members of the union. The unions only became interested in protecting these workers' rights when Four Corners reported on the issue, and I have repeated my concerns over and over again, many times in this place. But this is about human decency, and, regardless of the nationality of the worker, they all have the same rights and obligations while they are working here in Australia.

In Queensland, the Queensland Labor government have recognised that this is an issue and have launched another inquiry. The former federal Labor government launched an inquiry and a Senate inquiry, but it is this government that has launched Taskforce Cadena. We are making headway and we will fix this problem.

11:37 am

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I wish at the outset to congratulate the member for Bendigo for highlighting this very important issue and the government's inertia temporary work visa on tackling it. It appears that there is an alarming increase in exploitation of workers on temporary work visas in Australia—in particular, people on holiday visas, temporary work visas, international students and people under the 416 visa program, the seasonal workers program. There have been many publicised cases in recent months: workers at 7-Eleven being horribly exploited on temporary visas; Myer subcontractors employing cleaners on sham contracts; Pizza Hut delivery drivers being paid as little as $6 an hour; and Baiada Poultry involved in some alleged underpayment of wages as well.

Underpayment of migrant workers is not only illegal; it is immoral as well. It also gives Australia a bad international reputation. Over the longer term it can do damage to our economy; through lost revenue in terms of income tax, but also in terms of Australia getting an unsavoury reputation and then ultimately harming demand and income tax revenue throughout Australia.

I want to highlight the seasonal workers program. This was a program that was established to offer opportunities for Pacific Island nations to send workers to Australia to work in our agricultural and horticultural sectors. They would get an opportunity to have much higher wages, and hopefully better working conditions, and be able to send income back to their home countries. So there was a social element to the seasonal workers program.

Unfortunately in recent months we have seen a number of cases highlighted of exploitation of workers under this program. In Robinvale in Victoria, a company called PlantGrowPick is currently subject to Fair Work Ombudsman investigations for allegedly underpaying a group of Fijian workers. They were allegedly paid $1.20 an hour. These workers eventually had had enough and they left. They went to the airport and went home because they were sick of being exploited. Allegedly they were not allowed to leave the camp that they were living at unsupervised. They even were not allowed to sing on the job while they were picking fruit.

Then there is the case of Marooychy Sunshine. They are currently being investigated by Fair Work Australia for underpayment of 22 workers from Vanuatu. These workers were allegedly underpaid $77,649. It happens that one of those workers is the son of the head of the Department of Labour in Vanuatu. So this employer probably picked the wrong person to underpay. Again that goes to the issue of international reputation for Australia. Here is the son of the Commissioner of Labour in Vanuatu being underpaid—and on terrible conditions—by Australian employers.

Clearly there is an issue here, particularly with respect to labour hire companies that are set up for the purposes of making a quick buck. There might be not many assets behind the company and once there are attempts to investigate them—what do you know?—the company has gone bankrupt and another one is set up in similar circumstances. So the response from the government on this has been unfortunately quite weak—in fact, there has been deadly silence. The response had really been to just import more workers; we are seeing a ballooning in the number of 457 visa workers coming to this country.

In contrast, Labor is listening. Labor has been consulting with people in these circumstances and we are listening. Recently Bill Shorten and Brendan O'Connor released Labor's policy on protecting workers. It involves a number of new policies to tackle these problems, including tougher penalties for failing to pay workers properly, tripling the penalties for people who underpay wages, and cracking down on sham contracting. In the Productivity Commission report this was identified as a serious issue and the Productivity Commission said:

It seems to be too easy under the current tests for an employer to escape prosecution for sham contracting.

Labor will change that test at law to ensure that it is a 'reasonable person' test rather than the employer being able to plead that they did not know. We will also introduce new penalties for phoenix employers and specific penalties for exploitation of temporary overseas workers. (Time expired)

11:42 am

Photo of Sharman StoneSharman Stone (Murray, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I found the previous contribution a little amusing. The member talked about Labor 'now listening'. I guess Labor has done nothing before on this matter; it is nice to think they are now starting to listen. And they are going to release a policy some time soon. The fact is that for many years, the first years of most of these policies—seasonal workforce visas, overseas work available to students and so on—Labor was in power, and they did very little. In fact, the numbers blossomed and bloomed under Labor's regime. They did little when there was exploitation. It was not the rampant and horrific massive exploitation referred to by the member for Bendigo in her motion, but there was some. Unfortunately, with human nature involved, there is always the odd person who will try to exploit others in an effort to make financial gain.

But let me talk about what this government has done, because we know that the reputation of Australia as a destination for employment is very important. In my area of Murray we are dependent on international backpackers and overseas workers who are on 457 visas. We depend on them to work in our piggeries, in our abattoirs, in horticulture, and in fruit picking, pruning and packing. We are unfortunately an area that has high youth unemployment—over 27 per cent—but at the same time we are dependent on these international workers.

So there is no way we are going to see the reputation of Australia trashed because unions or the Labor Party think it resonates among some of their voters. We want to make sure the realities are presented. Already this year there has been a 10.2 per cent decline in overseas visa applications from holiday-makers, and that is a disappointment to us. We have to make sure that the reputation of Australia is not trashed by the opposition, but that the realities are presented.

Let me remind everybody that, in 2014, when we were in government, an independent review into the integrity of the subclass 457 visa program was commissioned by this government, and the government's response to this review was released in March 2014. The review did not find that there was widespread misuse of the program. It found that there were some loopholes which could be exploited by unscrupulous employers, and so we immediately moved to close those loopholes with the Migration Amendment (Charging for a Migration Outcome) Bill 2015. That was to ensure that no-one could receive payment for facilitating a visa, and we responded to the concerns by amending the Migration Act 1958 to make it unlawful for a person to receive a benefit in return for a migration outcome. The bill passed the Australian parliament on Wednesday, 25 November 2015.

Why didn't Labor do something about that? Not a squeak; not a move. It was up to the coalition to make those amendments.

Under the coalition we have new criminal penalties of up to two years' imprisonment or penalties of up to $324,000 for each instance applying to people engaging in this type of unlawful conduct, including sponsors of visa applicants, visa holders or third parties. Labor did nothing about that. They talk about, in their future policy, increasing penalties. Well, good for them—but have a look at what we have already done.

As our legislation shows, if there is a problem we respond to it. Unfortunately, as I repeat, Labor presided over any problems in the system for six years but did nothing. It reminds me a little bit of the White Australia policy which was a hallmark of the new federation, unfortunately, in this country in 1901. That was all about the Labor Party of the day trying to make sure that any migrant labour coming into our country was only to look like them—white, of Anglo-Irish extraction. We are over that. We are over the xenophobic Labor policy moves of the Labor government. We want to welcome into this country any worker who fits the visa qualifications and categories. We depend on that labour in horticulture and agriculture.

I also want to commend this government for very recently introducing the new dairy industry labour agreement. That is very, very important for dairying. It will be closely scrutinised, in all cases, looking for the skills that are needed in this country and also testing the market first. This is what our coalition always does.

11:47 am

Photo of Laurie FergusonLaurie Ferguson (Werriwa, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

A recent ABC report in the aftermath of the collapse of a Queensland enterprise gave a chilling indication of the agenda of the Turnbull government as to the Australian workforce. They spoke of the impact upon a nearby factory, on 200 workers who would lose their jobs because of the collapse of this enterprise. They did not speak about Australian workers of Lebanese, Sierra Leonean or German extraction; they spoke of the impact upon 200-odd Taiwanese workers, because the local factory affected clearly only employed Taiwanese workers. And that is the reality of which we speak today.

You would think, from hearing the previous speaker, that she had never ever had a discussion with the member for Hinkler on her own side who, unlike her, understands what is going on in the Australian workforce. It is all right for her to say that this is a 'minimal' problem et cetera. She is obviously in line with the previous minister for immigration, Mr Morrison, who, in the document Robust new foundations, spoke of the need to fast-track employers' rights to bring foreign workers into the country. He spoke of the way we could facilitate approvals. He spoke of the need to have easier English requirements for people. He also moved in relation to the 10 per cent reduction in the $53,900 maximum income threshold. In that release, he gave very cursory, minimal attention to reports by the Ombudsman in regard to the already existing problems.

When daily reports in our media and from the trade union movement, and from people like the member for Bendigo, exposed what was happening—the very drastic levels of underpayment and exploitation in this country—James Massola could report in The Sydney Morning Herald on 15 October 2015 that the employment minister, Michaelia Cash, was going to 'urgently' do something about the government's problem. She was going to put together a 'ministerial working group'. We have heard that the Minister for Justice, who is one of these high-powered intellectual giants on the committee, does not even know about its meetings. We have a situation where they were going to investigate illegal practices, and, it is interesting to note, had a 'very firm commitment' as to this very serious problem—they were going to make sure they did nothing until after the next elections.

Some time before that, the Monash University Centre for Population and Urban Research in August 2014 spoke of 417 workers 'along with students and other temporary visa holders … proving to be ferocious competitors for the same entry-level jobs that Australian resident youth are seeking'. Despite that very strong acknowledgement from Australian academia and in our media, this government says, 'We'll have a high-powered working group into this, and, after the next election, we might do something about this.'

Already, in June 2014, there were 711,240 temporary workers with work rights in this country. The level of complaints from them about the way they were treated by employers was three times the rate amongst the rest of the Australian workforce. The Fair Work Ombudsman—a government authority—as of the announcement in October 2015 by Minister Cash, could already indicate that they had had 6,000 requests for assistance by employees, and that $4 million had already been collected on their behalf.

So, whether it is the reports on 7-Eleven—the most notorious instance—or of a Darwin company paying backpackers $5 an hour, or of a blueberry business in northern New South Wales being ordered to pay back $46,000 in unpaid wages to nearly 140 seasonal workers, this is rampant. This—unlike the previous speaker's analysis—is not a minor, occasional, often accidental outcome. We are seeing a clear strategy by the Turnbull government, and its predecessor the Abbott regime, to make sure that the Australian workforce is undermined by a large number of imported temporary workers—whether they be students, 417 visa holders or backpackers. It all adds up to one reality: they are here to minimise the ability of workers to stand up for themselves. They are here to give employers the whip hand. They are here to make sure that the conditions of people in this country are driven down.

I will just remind the previous speaker: when she speaks about Labor earlier this century and what Labor did in the White Australia policy, maybe she could read the comments of Alfred Deakin with regard to why we should not have Japanese in this country.

11:52 am

Photo of Alannah MactiernanAlannah Mactiernan (Perth, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise certainly to support this motion and to raise a few additional areas of concern. I want to address the comments by the previous Liberal speaker—normally a very sensible person. They made absolutely absurd suggestions, attempting to suggest that it is racist to be concerned about the circumstances in which people who are brought into this country find themselves or be concerned as to whether there are going to be a sufficient number of jobs for our children and our grandchildren, and that this is somehow an ethnically based concern. Can I say two things over and over again: it is the union movement that has consistently stood up for workers overseas; it is the union movement that has been most active in prosecuting injustice done to workers in this country, including foreign workers in this country. The MUA has taken a role in protecting foreign work crews in the ships of shame. The international union movement funds the development of trade unions in countries like Cambodia where it is absolutely essential for the development of fairness on those workforces. So do not come into this place and talk about racism in the union movement. The union movement has been doing a magnificent job in this country and internationally to get justice for workers.

In relation to guest workers, I would like to think that I had a big involvement in getting a guest worker program available for East Timorese workers in the Kimberley at a time when we could not get workers, and that had the active support of the trade union movement in Western Australia and across Australia generally. The union movement has always understood that where we have a shortage of labour we invite foreign labour in, but we want to make sure those conditions are fair and that we ensure that we have enough jobs for people at home.

There are two things about this. Minister Michaelia Cash—and we hear this repeated over and over again—talks about the decline in the number of 457 visas. You would expect a decline in the number of 457 visas as unemployment has grown under the watch of this government. One of the things we are not really seeing is how the visas interact with each other. We have more and more people contacting us from the worksite saying, 'Guys, it's not the 457 visas that people are coming in under; it's the different visa classes.' The 400 visa class is particularly interesting. If we look at the figures of the 400 visa class, which is for temporary work, a short stay—supposedly for people of a high skill level—in 2012-13 there were 6,000 of those visas. By last year that figure had increased to 54,000 visas, and we are on track this year for over 70,000 visas. In fact, the 400 visa is fast outpacing the 457 visa. I suspect that what we are in fact seeing is people moving away for very much identical purposes. They are moving away from the 457, which everyone knows about, to the other visa classes, including the 400 visa class. I do not think the people of Australia are really being given an accurate picture about what is happening.

The second point I want to make relates to who is investigating the conduct of the employers who are bringing people in under these temporary visas. I was very disappointed to see that in relation to the Samsung matter—the quite notorious Samsung matter where young people were brought in notionally as engineers and professionals and put in jobs that were basically anything other than professional jobs, and they were made to work 84 hours a week and were underpaid—the investigation into the scandal was conducted by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. For some reason, it did not go to the Fair Work Commission; it went to the department of immigration. Unsurprisingly, the department of immigration found only two aspects of noncompliance, whereas the information that we have from a whistleblower who was involved in HR in the firm is that this was systemic. It was understood by the workers in the Pilbara that this was happening, and yet we had a whitewash on the matter. (Time expired)

Debate adjourned.