Tuesday, 27 February 2018
Migration and Other Legislation Amendment (Enhanced Integrity) Bill 2017; Second Reading
As always it's a great pleasure to represent the Goldstein electorate in this hallowed chamber and to have the opportunity to address a piece of legislation as important as this. My remarks will be relatively brief. The reality is that the core focus of this bill, as part of many that are being introduced in the migration space, is to build a greater sense of confidence and integrity in our migration system for Australians. As a nation we have always welcomed people from across the world and we must continue to do so. Migrants have made an incredible contribution to the building of this nation as new Australians at all stages, all the way from the beginning of those who have settled on this continent, and we should continue to support the arrival of new Australians onto our shores to help build Australia's future.
Having a system of integrity around our migration system is incredibly important to build that confidence, public trust and respect. That includes people, of course, who are seeking migration pathways as a consequence of fleeing from persecution or conflict overseas through the pathway of being an asylum seeker, all the way through to people who are skilled migrants or family reunions. At every stage there has to be confidence in the migration system to make sure that Australians know that the people they are letting into our country to help build its future are part of a positive contribution, that their identities are security checked and that there is proper integrity in the process.
That is what this bill seeks to do, by allowing the public disclosure of sponsor sanctions related to the consequences of people breaching visas. It will allow the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to collect records, store and use the tax file numbers of certain visa holders for compliance and research purposes. It will provide certainty around when merits review is available for visas that require an approved nomination, and allow the department to enter an enforceable undertaking with a sponsor who has breached their sponsor obligations related to work visas. These measures complement and are part of the significant reform package to abolish the subclass 457 visa and replace it with a new temporary skill shortage visa.
Let's not understate the importance of skills and providing migration pathways for skills and high value skill into this country. Many businesses or people who work within businesses in the Goldstein electorate need visa classes to enable skilled migrants to come to this country. They often form the foundation of much of the skills base that is sometimes lacking within our country. In fact, I've had a number of businesses who've come to see me recently about these changes. They are conscious of the impact that sits upon them and their businesses where they may have skills shortages. What this bill will enable people to do is make sure that they can continue to address skills shortages as part of the migration system. Equally, we can make sure that, as part of the total package of these measures, those businesses that can provide Australian jobs will provide Australian jobs.
The measures in this bill will apply to temporary and permanent sponsored skilled work visas, which includes the 457 visa and its replacement, the temporary skills shortage visa. These measures strengthen the integrity of these visa programs and protect Australians and overseas workers. The bill proposes to amend the Migration Act to allow the public disclosure of information concerning businesses that are sanctioned for breaching their sponsor obligations. This information will be published on the department's website. To make sure that businesses are forthright, honest and do the right thing by Australians and the workers that they seek to bring to this country, information released will include the sponsor obligation that was breached, the sanction that was imposed and the details of the business. Sponsor obligations are in place to protect the wages and conditions of Australian and overseas workers and to ensure skilled work programs are used only when an Australian is not available. Currently the department is only able to publicly release limited information regarding breaches. Whilst the department's annual report includes aggregate data on sponsor sanctions, it does not contain details of the companies that breach their obligations or the penalties that were issued. The presently available information is not enough to inform the public about the businesses that do the wrong thing. It is a critical part of making sure there is appropriate accountability in the system to build public confidence.
The bill also proposes to amend the Migration Act to provide certainty around when merits review is available for visas that require an approved nomination. The measure will clarify the situations in which review is available. It will clarify that review rights are determined at the time a decision to refuse a visa is made.
The bill also proposes to amend the Migration Act, Income Tax Assessment Act and the Taxation Administration Act to allow the department to collect, record, store and use the tax file numbers associated with temporary and permanent skilled visas for compliance and for research purposes as the foundation for making sure that this government and future governments make informed decisions so that migration advances the interests of Australians. It is proposed that the Migration Regulations will provide for the sharing of tax file numbers associated with temporary and skilled visas, including the subclass 457 visa. Enhanced data matching through tax file number sharing will improve the department's ability to perform the research and trend analysis that underpins the development of visa policy, something I think everybody in this House should encourage and want to see more of. The department will use tax file numbers to match and access data, including the salary data held by the ATO, so that people make sure they pay their proper investment in this country as part of the enjoyment of continuing to seek employment here. Whilst the department already conducts data sharing with the Australian Taxation Office, it does not have the authority to collect or store tax file numbers for this purpose. The data will assist the department to undertake more streamlined, targeted and effective compliance activity to identify employers who breach their obligations, including by underpaying visa holders, and visa holders working for more than one employer in breach of the visa conditions. TFNs will also improve the department's ability to undertake research and trend analysis. This will provide an additional evidence base for the department in developing skilled visa policy. In order to achieve these goals it is also proposed that the department would be able to store tax file numbers if they are provided during the visa application process, and it is proposed to amend the Migration Act so the department can enter into enforceable undertakings with sponsors who have breached their obligations. This provides the department and sponsors with an additional remedy to address breaches.
The issues around migration are often raised with me by the Goldstein community, because people want to have a strong sense of confidence in the operation of our migration system. We have had a number of debates within this parliament over a long period of time, looking at different methods in which people seek visas to be able to enter this country for work purposes, for family reunions and also for the purposes of seeking asylum. The more integrity we have around all aspects of our system, the more likely it is that we can continue to retain and increase public confidence in the migration system and make sure we remain a country open to the world. One of the worst things that we can do as a nation is to undermine that sense of public confidence.
We have all, either directly or through our ancestry, come to this great land and this great continent, wanting to invest in and build its future, and continuing migration is a critical part of that story. But to do so we need public confidence, which is delivered in this bill as well as many other bills as part of this package. These bills will help continue to restore that sense of public confidence and trust that can only be delivered by a Turnbull coalition government.
I'll start off by just reflecting on some of the comments we just heard and paying a compliment to the member for Goldstein. It's a backhanded compliment: that was the most boring speech I've ever heard you deliver, but I was grateful for the last minute, where you actually brought it home and said something. But it continues a trend which, I might note, we've seen since parliament resumed on private members' business, particularly this week, but also the government's own legislation: there's a complete dearth of government speakers who are prepared to come in and defend the government's agenda and explain it to people. There's a habit we've noticed. My favourite was the member for Boothby, who came back from pony club—or wherever she is when she's not in here—this morning and read out press releases to us on home care packages.
Thank you. Anyway, it is continuing a trend where government members are loath to actually come and speak on their bill but come and read out random explanatory memoranda. Anyway, thank you.
I'd say at the outset that we support the Migration and Other Legislation Amendment (Enhanced Integrity) Bill 2017. Indeed, it would be hard not to. It's a fairly sensible, if slowly baked and overdue, change to improve the integrity of the migration system. To enable the Department of Home Affairs or whatever it's called this week to collect tax file numbers, as has been outlined, is a pretty sensible effort at streamlining and ensuring more targeted and effective compliance. It can help, if done properly, to ensure the department will be able to check with employers that they're paying correctly and that workers on visas are complying with conditions: that they're working in an appropriate position with an employer in accordance with their visa requirements; that they're being paid the correct salary, particularly where those salaries have been nominated as part of the migration process; that they're paying tax; and, importantly, that they're being paid appropriately. Currently, as has been outlined, it is true that, with the temporary skilled migration system, there has been difficulty for the department in verifying that those things have been occurring. So in that context it's a sensible, practical measure, if somewhat modest. You wouldn't exactly say this is scintillating structural reform, but it is a constructive change nevertheless.
I want to make some remarks, though, on the context in which this measure has been introduced. First, I will just reflect on a little mystery for many of us, which is why this has taken so long to get here. It does need to be remarked upon. If you believe all the sensible things that we've heard from the minister, from opposition speakers and from the previous speaker, this is a sensible change, but it was in February 2014, four years ago, that the Abbott government—remember them?—commissioned a review of the 457 visa program. So off they go in February, and then in September 2014 they got the report. I think John Azarias, if I remember correctly, chaired it. There were 22 recommendations. So the government kind of chewed on that over summer, which is sort of a stately time frame. You wouldn't say it was accelerated or quick, but it was faster than a lot of things this government seems to do. In March 2015 the government's response came out, and I think they accepted all but a couple of the recommendations in full or in part. So, 12 months after they kicked off this review, they said, 'Okay, here's what we're going to do.' That was March 2015. So we're about to hit the third anniversary of the government saying, 'Here's a bunch of changes we're going to make to the temporary skilled migration system.' If these changes are so important, why has it taken three years to get what should be a pretty straightforward piece of legislation into this parliament so we can all agree on it and, as you say, improve the integrity of the temporary skilled migration system?
So, after three years, the government finally gets around to implementing just two of those recommendations—the tax file numbers, to allow these things to happen, and the 'name and shame'—to use a colloquial term—sanctions on sponsors who breach the visa conditions.
I note that, when the government introduced the bill some time last year, they trumpeted, they said very clearly, it was all going to be in place—and the immigration department or Home Affairs, or whatever it's called next week, would be collecting tax file numbers—by 31 December. That was the government's clear commitment. This system was going to be introduced by 31 December. As we know, they cancelled the last week of parliament, running scared, saying that there wasn't anything to do but the marriage bill. But the Notice Paper was full of sensible, somewhat important changes like this that we could have turned up to work for last year and voted on, and we could have had this in place. So let's be clear. This delay of three years and then stuffing around, diddling around, last year—who knows what they were doing—has meant that this pretty sensible change is still not in place.
You could speculate multiple-choice-wise, as the member for Bass and I often do, why this took so long. It could be incompetence. Incompetence is a theme. The Prime Minister got promoted for stuffing up the NBN, and we've seen a new Deputy Prime Minister promoted this week. So incompetence is a theme. It's a legitimate question about the delay of this measure by the government. I think it's just relevant. Are they confused? The government often confuses being in government with actually governing. It means you get recommendations, you move them through, you introduce legislation, you run a program and you vote on them. Or it could be that they're just fighting each other. We have seen a bit of that. I was hoping O'Dowd would come out on top to be Deputy Prime Minister! If they'd stop fighting they could go back to governing—debating legislation. Or indeed it could be that the government just does not see protecting vulnerable migrant workers as a priority. It's a very legitimate and important point.
Let's dwell on that last option. The truth is that at every step the government has had to be dragged kicking and dreaming to do anything meaningful to protect vulnerable migrant workers, despite being publicly shamed in many cases by endless scandals with 7-Elevens, kickbacks and underpayments—supposedly, some of the things this bill may go some small way towards preventing.
But I will be very clear to the House that the most vulnerable, exploited workers in Australia are those here on temporary visas. They are uniquely vulnerable to exploitation. Every hour of every day we have had evidence for years from across Australia that these people with little or no bargaining power in the workplace are being exploited by unscrupulous employers. That comes in many forms, as has been documented before in debates in this place, numerous times in the media and, indeed, in Senate inquiries that the government has done basically nothing with: underpayment, payment below the award or the minimum wage; theft of superannuation; being forced to work unpaid overtime; illegal kickbacks to employers for visa fees, tools, uniforms and so on. In that context, these tax file number changes and a bit of naming and shaming may help improve the system's integrity for some workers, and address a small amount of the underpayments—theoretically. But it is manifestly insufficient. This bill is not enough, not in anyone's universe, to address the pattern we have seen.
It's like the fair work amendment bill. You might remember that one, the Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Vulnerable Workers) Bill—a misnomer if ever there was one, as it didn't actually do anything much to protect vulnerable workers—that we had to debate last year. For this government, 'something is better than nothing' in this space seems to be its motto. Despite the numerous issues raised repeatedly in the parliament in recent years, they have still not addressed them.
I'll just repeat a pub test moment, and I think it is relevant—three propositions that I reckon past the pub test. The first point is that employers should pay their workers what they're owed and must act in accordance with the law. The second point, pretty non-controversial, is that the law should be enforced by a strong, well-resourced regulator. This bill does nothing in that regard to address the serious issues that are out there. The third point is that, where there are gaps in the law or regulatory regime, the government and parliament must act quickly to fix them. With something as modest as this change, really, 'quickly' does not mean that, three years after you said you'd do it, you're finally getting around to scheduling it on the legislative program.
Exactly. And it's important, Assistant Minister, that the parliament actually spends time thinking about workplace exploitation, not diddling around with administrative changes. Your government has not responded to the Senate committee reports on vulnerable workers.
Mrs Andrews interjecting—
You might laugh. It might be funny that people are working in almost slavery like conditions across the country! You might find that funny. I call on the government to stop being complacent, stop pretending to act, stop coming in here and waffling about administrative changes, and actually do something about this. We have 1.2 million or more people in this country right now on temporary visas with work rights attached. That's a fact. They include people on 457s, working holiday makers and international students.
I think it's difficult for people who are born in this country or came here many decades ago, in a different migration world, to truly understand the terror that is caused for temporary migrants by employers holding their migration sponsorship over them. We've had reports of sexual slavery. We've had numerous reports of underpayment. I remember an employer in one of those programs on TV last year, and he said, 'Visa holders are the best workers you can get because, if they don't do what you want, you can just put them on a boat and send them back.' That is the attitude that needs to be addressed, and it's not going to be addressed, despite all the fine rhetoric of the government, by tax file number comparisons. Worthy as it goes, it's not sufficient to address the terror that's caused—'Do what I say or I'll dob you in and you'll be deported.' Much more needs to be done.
I know from conversations with people in my community about this that it's often thought, 'Temporary migrants, vulnerable workers—that doesn't affect me; that's other people.' You can kind of tune out and say, 'That's bad. The government should do something about that, but it doesn't affect me.' It does. It affects every Australian. It affects everyone seeking a job in the labour market, particularly in the lower-skilled industries and lower-paid occupations. It's not fair that unscrupulous employers won't be hit by this bill—the government has still refused to act—and employers trying to do the right thing are undercut by employers who are cheating the system. It's not fair that the integrity of the workplace relations system is undermined and, importantly, as has been shown repeatedly, it distorts the labour market and wages. We talk about low wage growth, particularly at the low end, for low-skilled workers. Well, in many industries a big reason for that is that we have temporary migrants being exploited, being paid below award wages, working unpaid over time and so on and so forth. How do you bargain in that environment against an employer. This is real life.
So, in concept the bill is fine, albeit years late. But, in execution, I might note—because I did read most of the Bills Digestthat, despite all the time they've had, three years, it's badly drafted. So, despite the delay, it's a sloppy job. There's discussion in paragraph 338 (2)(d) around it being ambiguous, and the Law Council said, 'You really need to remove it or redraft it.' But it wasn't just the Law Council; the government's own Scrutiny of Bills Committee said, 'This isn't very good.' So it's not even a good job.
In summary, the government's attitude on this is insufficient. Every time you bring a bill in here I and other Labor members will stand up and say, 'It's not enough. Go back to those Senate inquiries and bring some legislation forward that addresses the problems.' The government may find it funny but they are serious issues for so many people in my electorate, a heavily multicultural area. I have this old-fashioned view that we should actually represent people in the country, not just citizens. In that regard, I know the member for Willis and I have tens of thousands of people living in our electorates, in our communities, contributing in different ways to the community, who are being exploited right now because of the government's lack of action.
Just as the member for Bruce pointed out, it's not good enough. It's always the case that something falls short with this government, in every area, and this is another example of that—just not good enough. While we will support the Migration and Other Legislation Amendment (Enhanced Integrity) Bill 2017 in the House, because we want to ensure vulnerable overseas workers are appropriately protected from unscrupulous employers, and it's a step in the right direction, there's still a long way to go to genuinely protect vulnerable workers, including migrant workers, as well as ensuring that Australians and locals get the first shot at local jobs.
There's been a lot of debate in the House around immigration and migration matters over the last couple of weeks. We had before us another migration legislation bill on which I spoke and raised concerns around the immigration policy under this government and particularly that it is being securitised under the new Department of Home Affairs. That really is a failure to understand that this policy area is one of a facilitation of new migrants coming to our country who contribute economically, socially and culturally, whereas security is only one aspect of that and not the entirety of it.
We have heard from the member for Warringah that he believes the skilled migrant intake should be halved. The member for Warringah is wrong when he suggests these cuts to the intake of migrants. These are people who work, pay taxes and contribute to our society and of course this would have a negative impact on our economic growth. But then you have the Treasurer, who was just disingenuous in his attack on the member for Warringah. It's actually his government, the Abbott-Turnbull government, which has cut funding for infrastructure—roads and transport—and funding to schools and hospitals. All of those are feeling enormous strain, particularly in the capital cities of Melbourne and Sydney because, as we know, the majority of our migrant intake goes to those two cities. So, instead of taking pot shots at each other with simplistic arguments over cutting migration, what about some creative policies? What about investing in infrastructure, just to start with? What about some incentives for migrants to settle in other capital cities or in regional centres? What about support for advanced manufacturing, research and development, IT and biotech jobs? As Labor leader Bill Shorten has pointed out, it's important to tighten the visa restrictions on temporary migrant visa holders who, as we know, are adding further pressure to cities like Melbourne and Sydney. So I would call on the government to do its job so Australia can continue to benefit economically from skilled migration.
We're talking about specifically migrant workers. As we know, and as we have heard, they are absolutely vital to the future of Australia's economy. You would be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker Buchholz, that in the agricultural industry, for example, getting migrants and migrant workers to rural areas helps reduce labour shortages, particularly during seasonal harvesting peaks. It counteracts the trend of population movement away from the bush to the capital cities. That's a good thing. Immigrants, including refugees and these migrant workers, sometimes go on to become permanent residents and Australian citizens and go on to become entrepreneurs themselves. They open up their own businesses. This has been proven. According to the research paper titled New immigrants improving productivity in Australian agriculture, skilled immigrants in the agricultural sector are much more likely to set up their own business, at around 15 per cent, than the Australian average rate of entrepreneurship at 10 per cent. Immigrant farmers are also filling the growing intergenerational gap in farm succession and bringing with them new technologies and innovations to Australian farming, as well as introducing many new vegetables that expand Australia's food horizons.
For all the opportunities, however, it is a fact that some of the most exploited workers in Australia are these migrant workers. Migration status, even for those with the right to work in Australia, is often used as leverage to exploit those workers. This is evident from many different inquiries. The Victorian state government's 2016 inquiry into the labour hire industry and insecure work highlighted some of these cases of exploitation. It's no secret then that within Australia there are employers who are deliberately and systematically denying Australian and migrant workers their rights, freedoms and a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. This includes gross underpayment of wages, doctoring pay records to conceal unlawful conduct, physical intimidation and subjecting workers to threats of deportation. Most decent employers will not do this. There are some employers, however, that prefer temporary grant workers because they are more compliant and less likely to complain or be unionised. Employers who deliberately and systematically deny workers their rights are not only denying working people a fair day's pay for a fair day's work; they are undercutting the employers who want to do the right thing and who are doing the right thing. They undermine the integrity of the workplace relations system, they distort the labour market and they undermine the principles of fair competition that should be the foundations of a successful economy.
We know that this bill will enable the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to collect tax file numbers, which will help streamline more targeted and effective compliance activities. The amendment gives effect to the recommendations of the Robust new foundations: a streamlined, transparent and responsive system for the 457 programmereport,which recommended that the department disclose greater information on its sanctions actions and communicate this directly to all sponsors and the migration advice profession, as well as placing information on its website.
Currently, the department is only able to release limited information to the public regarding breaches of sponsorship obligations. The department is unable to advise informants of the outcome of their complaint. So these changes, as minor as they are, will mean the department will be able to check that bosses are paying their workers correctly and that visa holders are complying with the conditions of the visa, including that they are working in an appropriate position with the one employer. Labor acknowledges that there are currently difficulties verifying that sponsors are paying visa holders correctly or checking if a visa holder is working for more than one employer. So collecting tax file numbers will assist the department to undertake more streamlined, targeted and effective compliance activities. It will also ensure that the department can publicly name businesses that breach their sponsorship obligations. This will give prospective staff the opportunity to be informed about who they are signing up to work for.
There's also the added point that this will ensure some certainty around merit review rights for visas that require an approved nomination and that the relevant legislation achieves the government's policy intention. The amendment ensures that it is clear that the merits review is available at the appropriate point in the visa application process—namely, when a visa is refused—and only in circumstances where there is either an approved nomination or a decision affecting whether there is an approved nomination. This reflects the original policy intention. Merit reviews continue to be available for nomination and visa decisions, albeit only after refusal. However, the bill does not change or remove a visa applicant's rights to judicial review, which is the right to challenge the legal validity of a decision in a court.
Despite all this, we are aware on our side of the House—given the complexity of the Migration Act, which is such a complex piece of legislation—that any amendments always warrant further consultation and investigation. That's the important basis of the reasoning, if you like, to refer to bill to a Senate inquiry for further scrutiny. Frankly, another reason is to give stakeholders the opportunity to have their say about the practical effects and the legal implications of this bill. Another reason for the referral of the bill to the Senate is to try to avoid what happened when the Turnbull government's changes to the skilled migration system sent waves of uncertainty through the business, innovation and education sectors. Stakeholders at the time had been very vocal in raising their concerns about the unintended consequences of the Turnbull government's recent changes to skilled migration.
This is why it's so disappointing, yet not surprising, that this Abbott-Turnbull government has to be dragged kicking and screaming to the table to bring forward any measures to address exploitation of vulnerable workers. As the previous speaker noted, it's just not a priority for them. True to form, the Turnbull government botched their changes to temporary skilled migration, proving they can't be trusted with Australian jobs.
Under this government, too many local workers are being left at the back of the queue for local jobs. Local workers are missing out on job opportunities. Employers can hire migrant workers in areas where Australians are willing and able to work. That is because there is currently no proper mechanism for ensuring there is a skill shortage for the jobs in which employers hire migrant workers. For example, nursing, teaching and engineering are all on the Short-term Skilled Occupation List. All are occupations where Australians are struggling to enter the labour market.
Under the current government, 457 visas are being manipulated to bring in cheap labour. Workers have been flown in on 457 visas under this government for jobs as cooks, chef, nurses, IT support and administration staff, mechanics, fitters, welders, carpenters, joiners, hairdressers, teachers, early childhood educators, draftspersons, electricians and bricklayers. Are the government seriously telling us that these jobs can't be filled locally? Is that what they're asking us to believe? We're very concerned that Australians are missing out on these jobs. We should be employing local workers and investing in apprenticeships and training to give young kids the chance at these quality jobs.
However, let's be clear: as I've said earlier, we are not against migrant workers. We've already highlighted the important role they can and do play in the agricultural industry, for example. We've highlighted how they have been exploited. But the figures show that only about 3.5 per cent of 457 visas are for the mining industry, and less than two per cent are for the agricultural industry. More than 85 per cent of 457 visas are used to fly in workers to fill jobs in capital cities. While the Minister for Home Affairs is lamenting the strain on our capital cities infrastructure and the cities being 'overcrowded', and the member for Warringah talks about cutting the intake of migrant numbers by half, the fact is that the minister's own department is contributing to that strain and making it harder for local workers to find jobs. The Minister for Home Affairs is seeking to reheat the old migration numbers debate by focusing on fear mongering and the securitisation of Australia's immigration policy.
The real issue is that the Liberals are ignoring the hundreds of thousands of workers granted 457 visas for jobs that local workers could be doing. We believe that 457 visas should only be used to bring in workers with highly specialised skills for jobs which businesses cannot find local workers to do. It's a simple proposition. But 457 visas are currently being rorted to import cheap labour from overseas, instead of training and employing local workers.
Labor will crack down on these rorts to stop 457 visas being abused and ensure local workers are employed first. We're the only party in this place that has a plan to put local workers first and ensure businesses are training and employing local workers. We will always put local workers first. We will ensure that temporary work visas are filling genuine skill shortages. We will establish an independent authority to advise government on current skill shortages and future skill needs. We will address skill shortages with training that will lead to real jobs for local workers. We will strengthen penalties for employers who abuse the system and exploit their workers. We will not waive labour-market testing requirements in new free trade agreements. We will introduce a new science, high-tech and research visa allowing for continued access to the best specialists to collaborate with their Australian counterparts.
Labor has always been the party to stand up for middle- and working-class Australians. We took this policy to the last election. In government in 2013, Labor reintroduced labour-market testing requirements which had been removed by the Liberals in 2001. It is clear that further steps are needed to end the rorts and ensure local workers are given a first opportunity at jobs. That is why we will support this bill in the House. We will consider any recommendations of the Senate inquiry before forming our final position in the Senate.
I rise today to speak on the Migration and Other Legislation Amendment (Enhanced Integrity) Bill 2017. I want to make it very clear from the beginning that I support any measure—any measure—that ensures vulnerable workers or vulnerable overseas workers are appropriately protected from dishonest or unfair employers.
It seems like it's every single week that we hear new stories of a fraudulent boss underpaying their workers, oftentimes exploiting workers and vulnerable working-visa holders. It seems like it's almost every that week we're reading about this. I don't think it would come as a huge shock to anybody who might be listening to know that there are employers out there who are deliberately and systematically denying visa holders what they are entitled to as workers in this country. This is truly unacceptable behaviour.
Our entire economy is built upon the principles of fair competition: everyone is entitled to the same basic minimum wages and conditions. Australia's trade unions have fought for decades and decades for these conditions for our entire country—for the benefit of both workers and employers. By blatantly undermining these conditions, unlawful businesses are throwing a huge slap in the face to all those hard workers who came before them, stood their ground and built the Australian industrial relations system that we have today.
I'm not talking about a business who just accidently pays someone a dollar or two less, realises, and then moves very quickly to fix it up when they find out what the error is. I'm not talking about those businesses. What I'm talking about are unfair and unlawful practices that exploit vulnerable workers and undercut the employers who want to do the right thing. We've seen deliberate practices, like the gross underpayment of wages and subsequent doctoring of records to hide the unlawful conduct, or the utilisation of physical violence. We've seen evidence of that and threats of deportation to coerce people into forfeiting the conditions that they're entitled to. There are unscrupulous employers. They aren't unheard of.
We know of an incident between 2006 and 2009 where a 457 visa worker who spoke very limited English was exploited by an Indian restaurant in Melbourne. Although some weeks he worked up to 71 hours a week, he received a weekly pay of just $752. The federal magistrate that presided over that case acknowledged that through their employment agreement the employer had demonstrated their knowledge of workplace laws, so this was very clearly exploitation of someone more vulnerable than just the average Australian worker.
That magistrate also noted that the provisions that were breached are notorious—that was his word—in Australian workplace culture. No breaches should ever become so common as to become notorious in an industry. What is quite clear is that there are Australian employers who are deliberately and systematically choosing to deny workers their rights, their freedoms and the remuneration that they are entitled to. But what is also very clear is that not enough is being done by this coalition government to prevent the denying of those rights and freedoms and remuneration that they are entitled to.
The recent changes that the government made to the skilled worker program—I have to be honest, I find them nothing short of sloppy. Not only have the changes brought in by the government failed to do enough to protect these migrant workers; they've also sent waves of uncertainty through the business, innovation and education sectors throughout Australia. Despite their rhetoric, they have failed to put Australians first. More than 140,000 workers on skilled visas have been flown in from overseas under the Liberal-National government. We know 85 per cent of 457 visa workers fly in. They're fly-in workers and they're in capital cities. They've been flown in to take jobs as nurses and carpenters, early childhood educators and electricians.
In my electorate of Longman we have some of the very best nurses you will ever find in this country. We have some of the very best tradies, carpenters. We have highly qualified and professional early childhood educators. Some of the very best electricians that you will ever see are working in my electorate. Yet these are the skilled visas that we're giving out. At a time when we've got 723,000 unemployed Australians, we really have to ask: are there really no local people who could take these jobs? Surely not. This is just another example of the skilled worker program failing under the coalition government. Too many local workers are being left at the back of the queue.
I want to be very clear: I'm not advocating for this program to be abolished, nor am I suggesting that there's no place for skilled workers in this country, because there absolutely is. There will always be a gap between what Australian workers can offer and what can be satisfied by migrant workers, but these gaps are not as big as what are being filled by migrant workers. What should really be used as a bandaid solution to a temporary problem with the Australian labour market is essentially being used as a full body cast. While it might be helping to correct some of the problem areas, at the same time the current system is restricting access for Australian workers. Like I said, I know for a fact there are a number of people in my electorate who are fantastic tradespeople—nurses, early childhood educators, electricians. But there are other tradespeople who would love the opportunity to find work, who are looking for work, and yet what we're finding is that they're being overlooked in favour of overseas labour. It just isn't fair.
What we have seen is a coalition resting on its laurels. What I'm constantly being asked is: what will the Labor Party do? What's their plan to stop this blatant abuse of the skilled worker program? We have a plan. That's what I can say. We have a plan. That plan is to put local workers first and to skill up Australia. That's our plan. Labor understand there is a skills shortage and 457s are only a temporary measure. Is it is quite clear that a longer term solution would be to address the root of the issue when we are talking about skilled labour in this country. That is done by encouraging, not restricting, skills training of all Australians. Anybody with some foresight could see this, but obviously the skill of looking forward is in very, very short supply within the ranks of this government. I suggest that it's members could do some skills training themselves because, if the government truly understood how to address a skills shortage, they would not have cut $637 million from VET funding in the 2017 budget. Instead we find them following Labor's lead and making TAFE the centrepiece of Australia's training system.
Under Labor that $637 million worth of cut funding would be restored. As we announced last week, we will reshape the way Australians think about TAFE, making sure it's on equal footing with universities. The revolutionary inquiry that Labor will start within its first 100 days of government will just begin fixing this mess that the Liberals have left of Australia's skills training sector. To ensure that the future skills needs are addressed, Labor will establish an independent authority to advise government on those skills shortages and how to alleviate them—because that just makes sense. A strong skills training sector means a skilled-up Australian workforce, and a skilled-up Australian workforce means more local workers in more local jobs and less reliance on overseas workers.
The coalition really have not taken their role seriously. There should be a strong focus from the government on creating and protecting decent and secure work for locals, but instead they have applied a truly haphazard approach. We don't have to look too far to see that. Just look at the previous iteration of the Trans-Pacific Partnership when the Liberals were happy to do a deal that didn't require true labour market testing. I'm really concerned that the new free trade agreement which the Prime Minister is concocting in the shadows won't—
I would have thought skilled workers and training Australians to be those skilled workers is entirely relevant to legislation that ensures that we have the workers we need for the future. It has direct relevance to 457s. But I will continue talking about labour market testing. We need to talk about labour market testing if we're going to talk about 457 visas and fixing that gap while we are reskilling the Australians that have had their skills cut under this government.
I will go back very quickly to the TPP. I'm sure the email inboxes of the members that sit across from us would be full of people talking about the TPP and skilled workers in this country as well. I'm sure I'm not the only one receiving those emails calling for skilling Australian workers. Going back to the TPP, what we need to make sure is there is true genuine labour market testing when it comes to the TPP. We don't know for sure that that's going to exist in the current TPP. Under Labor we will ensure that true labour market testing exists. We will ensure that employers advertise any jobs for Australia for at least four weeks before looking overseas at 457 visa holders to give local workers the first opportunity to apply. We will make sure the ads don't set any sort of unrealistic expectations or skill requirements to make sure that local workers have first crack at getting these jobs. Labor will make sure that businesses will utilise a significant number of temporary workers and have a plan to train local workers. These are very simple fixes that will see more jobseekers in local positions.
As the assistant minister asked me to come back and be relevant—and I'm not sure where I deviated—I welcome her government finally bringing to the table a piece of legislation that will go some way towards enabling the recording, storing and usage of tax file numbers of applicants and holders of specified visas. I welcome the government finally bringing that to the table. It has taken far too long of course, but we've got here.
I'm happy to support the bill—I'm happy to support any bill that protects vulnerable overseas workers from exploitation at the hands of unscrupulous bosses—but really what we need is more reforms. We need to put an end to the exploitation of skilled workers, to provide them with proper and robust protections and to ensure that they get a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. It shouldn't matter where they're from. When they're working in Australia they should be entitled to the protections that our Australian unions have fought for.
In closing, it's clear that, in an environment where we have skill shortages, the best way forward is to ensure that we encourage skills training. It doesn't make sense that a job like bricklaying can languish on the list of jobs eligible for 457 visas longer than it takes to actually train someone to be a brickie. The government have been championing their $65 billion handout to big business. If they're serious about skilling up Australia and getting locals into work then they are more than welcome to follow Labor's lead on skilling up Australians. We need to ensure that the true integrity of this bill is upheld. We need to ensure that in this country no worker providing labour—labour that builds this country and contributes to company profits—is exploited. (Time expired)
I want to speak on this bill for a number of reasons. Most people on this side of the House in the Labor opposition would be interested in a bill that calls itself the Migration and Other Legislation Amendment (Enhanced Integrity) Bill, because we've all heard the stories over the last few years of workers who have come from overseas to work in Australia and have been appallingly exploited—they have been paid less than the award, been required to work more hours and pretend that they worked fewer, been marched to automatic teller machines and made to repay part of their wages to their employer, been intimidated and been made to pay exorbitant visa fees or accommodation fees. We've heard appalling stories of workers being exploited in a country that we think is all about fairness and mateship. When the government put up this bill with the words 'enhanced integrity' relating to overseas workers I thought I want to talk about that, because we as a nation need to do better.
Unfortunately, this bill doesn't do anywhere near enough. In many ways it's so little and it's very late. Because of that it's hard to believe that the government is really serious about addressing what is an epidemic of worker exploitation in this country. We on the opposition side will support the bill because we do want to ensure that vulnerable overseas workers are appropriately protected from unscrupulous bosses.
This bill does a couple of things. It enables the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to collect tax file numbers, which will help to make compliance activities more streamlined, targeted and effective. That in itself is a good thing. It means the department will be able to check that bosses are paying their workers correctly and that visa holders are complying with the conditions of their visa, including that they are working in an appropriate position with the one employer. The bill will also ensure that the department can publicly name businesses who breach their sponsorship obligations. This will give prospective staff the opportunity to be informed about who they are signing up to work for.
We know from many of the stories that some of the most exploited workers in Australia are migrant workers. It is no secret that, within Australia, there are employers who are deliberately and systematically denying Australian and migrant workers rights, freedoms and a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. We are hearing examples of wage theft every single day. But I would question whether the ability to collect tax file numbers will address some of the manipulation that is taking place in the workforce where an employee may be paid the appropriate amount of money but is being required to pay their employer back in various ways and for various services.
With such a wealth of methods for exploiting foreign workers in this country at the moment, this bill won't go anywhere near far enough. In fact, I would suggest that, with the level of exploitation that is taking place in Australia, the real issues will not be addressed unless the government has a serious look at market testing to ensure that, when a business sponsors an overseas worker, they do so because there isn't one available in Australia. Again, we know the government resists the idea of market testing. But, without that, you can't be serious about stopping the exploitation of workers if you are still allowing businesses to choose to employ foreign workers because they can pay them less than Australia; they are not supposed to, of course, but we see examples of illegal action every single day. Without real market testing, you can't really take this government seriously.
I am also concerned that, with the collection of tax file numbers, the government might use this bill to target exploited workers a little more than they might target exploiting employers; it does, after all, track the worker. It is a facility that the government can use for workers or employers. I really hope the government are serious about that and use the provisions of this bill to tackle employers who behave badly rather than chasing people in appalling circumstances who are sometimes being forced to work more hours than their visas allow, and for lesser amounts of pay, under the threat of being deported. There are workers who have had their passports confiscated. I have had people in my electorate talk to me anonymously and refuse to give their name or their employer's name because they are so fearful of being deported. So we will wait and see whether the government is really serious about wage theft and uses the provisions of this bill to pursue the large number of sometimes large and high-profile businesses that have been exploiting workers.
Again, it is hard to take the government seriously when this bill doesn't cover seasonal workers. It covers temporary and permanent sponsored visas. That is very important, but it doesn't cover the thousands of backpackers and seasonal workers that come into the country. In recent months we have heard appalling stories of sexual exploitation and underpayment or non-payment of wages, sometimes for months, in this area. This bill doesn't touch that at all. It only deals with temporary and permanent sponsored visas. In some cases, it would be fair to say that what is happening among some of our seasonal workers and backpackers is slave labour. This bill does nothing on that.
I'm a great supporter of sponsored visas. I've spoken twice in the House this week on my concerns about the government's actions on market testing et cetera. There are very good reasons for sponsored visas. During the mining building boom, when the mines were expanding rapidly, we required an enormous number of construction workers. There is no way in the world a nation would train workers for a four- or five-year build; you just don't do that. So it was perfectly logical to bring in workers for that. And it is perfectly logical to bring in workers where a new field opens up and suddenly you need skills we don't have in Australia and it takes time to train them. I can see situations in my electorate—for example, with really quite high-quality restaurants in Gujarat or Telugu food. You don't learn that at TAFE in Australia. You might learn a whole range of things about being a chef, but not those specific fields. I remember the government making much fun of the idea that we had goat herders on the skilled migration list. But when you go out to regional areas and see how many feral goats there are and how many businesses there are growing in that field, you see that you sometimes don't have the skills required for something that emerges, and it takes a while to train them.
It is incredibly important, but we shouldn't be using overseas workers to come into Australia where an Australian can do the job, and we shouldn't be using them without training Australian workers to take over. If the government is really serious about ensuring that, as a country, we make the best and most effective use of overseas workers, I want to see the long-term planning and the building of skills in advance of need, I want to see the projections of skills shortages, I want to see genuine training plans in those areas, and I really don't see that. If they were really serious about ensuring that Australians got the jobs first, where those jobs were available, and that we only brought in overseas workers where Australians couldn't do the jobs and that those workers were not exploited, they would be doing much more than this, including market testing. But, mostly, I know they're not serious about this because it just took so long, and, after so long, this is it: the collection of tax file numbers for sponsored temporary and permanent workers—not for backpackers, not for seasonal workers, but just for that group. It is so little for an issue which is just so big.
We hear of major companies that have been behaving very badly and engaging in what can only be called wage theft. Time goes pretty fast when you're in this place, and we all remember when the 7-Eleven scandal broke. It was truly appalling. Fairfax and Four Corners combined, and their report came out in August 2015. It is now February, nearly March, 2018—2½ years later. That's how long it's taken for this government to act. The Senate inquiry into this, which began shortly after the 7-Eleven report, reported in March 2016. That was two years ago. The report was called A national disgrace: the exploitation of temporary work visa holders, and two years later this thin bill that does so little is the result. I would strongly suggest that if the government wants to be taken seriously on this they go back and look at the recommendations of that report. Just have a look at how much is needed to really clamp down on this.
There were articles in February 2016. I have an SBS article in front of me from February 2016 about the 7-Eleven workers, but there are many other articles from the same era talking extensively about worker exploitation. On 21 November 2017 there was another report. By Laurie Berg and Basinna Farbenblum and called Wage Theft in Australia: Findings of the National Temporary Migrant Work Survey, it drew on responses from 4,322 temporary migrants across 117 nationalities. The authors found almost a third of international students and backpackers earned $12 per hour or less, about half the minimum wage for the casual employee in many of the jobs in which temporary migrants worked. Those workers aren't covered by this bill. The report said:
Underpayment was widespread across numerous industries but was especially prevalent in food services, and especially severe in fruit and vegetable picking.
Again, these areas are not generally covered by this bill. Severe underpayment was experienced by every major nationality of backpackers and international students in this country, and at least one in five Americans, British, Indians, Brazilians and Chinese earned roughly half the minimum wage. At least three-quarters of underpaid international students knew they were being paid less than the minimum wage but stayed because they believed that everyone else on the visa was earning the same. This is an indictment of what is happening in this country. None of this activity is covered by this bill, because this bill covers permanent and temporary sponsored visas. These are not.
Just to give an idea of how late this government is, with all of its resources, with ministers, with staff, with the departments, with all the resources available to a government, it's taken them two years since the Senate report to do anything at all, and nearly 2½ years since the first 7-Eleven reports came out. Labor, on the other hand, put out its first plan to tackle worker exploitation in February 2016, two years ago. Three or four months after the 7-Eleven report, Labor's caucus committee that worked in this area had travelled the country, talked to workers and put together the first plan for serious cases of worker exploitation. We have grown it since then. But even in February 2016, we knew that Myer subcontractors employing cleaners on sham contracts were being paid well below the award wage, denied penalty rates and superannuation, and were working without occupational health and safety protections. We knew about 7-Eleven stores, of course. We knew that Pizza Hut delivery drivers were being paid as little as $6 an hour in a rampant sham contracting arrangement. We knew there was widespread exploitation of workers in Baiada Group food processing factories, including workers being required to work dangerously long hours for less than the award wage.
We put together a plan right then to crack down on the underpayment of workers, ramp up protection for workers from sham contracting, to give the Fair Work Ombudsman more power and introduce reforms to ensure that temporary workers were not being exploited and underpaid. It was two years ago, from opposition, with very little support staff and no public sector behind us. We managed to come up with a plan in three or four months, and we travelled the country preparing it. This government's had two years, with all of the resources of government. That's why I can't take this government seriously. It is far too little and far too late. Be serious about this. This is a blight on the Australian workforce and it's about time the government fixed it. (Time expired)
I rise to speak on the Migration and Other Legislation Amendment (Enhanced Integrity) Bill 2017. This bill seeks to make amendments to the Migration Act with changes that are mostly quite technical. I commend the contribution by the member for Parramatta prior to me. The Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection in his second reading speech said the purpose of this bill is to protect Australian and overseas workers by strengthening the integrity of Australia's temporary and permanent sponsored skilled work visas. It is a commendable goal and something that obviously Labor supports, because we'll always support measures that will support vulnerable overseas workers from unscrupulous employers.
As anyone knows who knows their labour history or Australian political history, the Labor Party was born out of the labour movement and from that became a political party devoted to looking after employees as much as possible. That is our record. That is something that we're particularly proud of. I have seen this in my electorate. I have gone on trips up to Bundaberg and to the Lockyer Valley with Ken Lai, one of the representatives from the Taiwanese economic and cultural office, where we looked at the way Taiwanese backpackers were being treated. I'll come to the Taiwanese community a little later. I know that it's important we get this right because it sends a bad message to potential travellers, potential Australians perhaps even, if we don't look after them when they're working in Australia.
As deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, I'm familiar with the committee's examination of this bill. I point out that the human rights committee identified several issues of concern with this bill. The amendments contained in this bill, which, as I said, are mainly technical, seek to require the minister to publish information prescribed by the regulations, including the personal information of sponsors who have been sanctioned for failing to satisfy the obligations of sponsorship. The committee was concerned that this amendment may infringe the right to privacy of those individuals, as the publishing requirements in the bill appeared to be broader than what was outlined in the bill's statement of compatibility.
The committee asked the advice of the minister as to whether the limitation on the right to privacy is proportionate to the achievement of the stated objective, including whether there are adequate and effective safeguards with respect to the right to privacy. The minister's response confirmed that the information to be published will be narrowly confined but that such information will be prescribed by regulation. After the human rights committee considered the minister's response, it was of the view that, on balance, the measure is likely to be compatible with the right to privacy but that the committee would consider the human rights compatibility of the regulations that prescribe the information to be disclosed once they have been received. All are part of open and accountable government.
The human rights committee was also concerned about the amendment in the bill that permits the tax file numbers of applicants and holders of specified visas to be requested, provided, used, recorded and disclosed. The digital age is a wonderful thing. It brings many innovations. It means we have technology in our pockets, in our phones that people could only dream of 10 years ago. But with that comes the possibility of hacking, of information being disclosed and all the fraud that can flow from such thefts. So hacking is something we need to be aware of.
The right to privacy does extend to informational privacy. The human rights committee was concerned that the provision was overly broad by allowing a tax file number to be collected from any class of visa applicant holder or former visa holder. Again, the human rights committee sought the advice of the minister, who stated:
The collection, use, recording and disclosure of tax file numbers will be prescribed in the Regulations. It is intended that the regulations will allow tax file number sharing in relation to a narrow list of subclasses, that is limited to temporary and permanent skilled visas, for research and compliance purposes. This includes identifying and preventing exploitation.
The committee considered that the limitation indicated by the minister and the safeguards to be put in place by way of a communications package provided to affected persons would protect that individual's rights. This bill has also been considered by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee and the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills. Those committees also expressed concern about some provisions of the bill.
As an aside, I'd like to point out the great work that is done by committees in scrutinising legislation both in this House and in the other place. I mention that in passing to the minister at the table because we've been on a committee together. I commend him for not only his promotion but also the good work he's done behind the scenes on parliamentary committees, looking at legislation, making sure that we get the best results for the Australian people. It has nothing to do with political parties. I congratulate the member for Murray on his promotion and the work he did in the trade subcommittee with me.
This bill has been well and truly scrutinised. On balance the bill will help protect vulnerable overseas workers, allow the department to check that bosses are paying their workers correctly and allow the department to publicly name businesses who breach their sponsorship obligations. It's essential that we protect overseas workers who come to Australia in good faith to work in Australian conditions. There's the old saying: it's not the good bosses that are the concern; it's the bad bosses who exploit people. It's the bad bosses who, by undercutting the efforts of good bosses, drive good bosses out of business. That is not the sort of Australia that we want.
Migrant workers are vital to the health of the Australian economy. They have an important role to play. Migrant workers are improving Australia's labour productivity and helping Australian businesses to source labour that might otherwise be hard to find. That is the whole focus obviously. Importantly, migrant workers are also helping Australia to offset the effects of an ageing population. We have seen these effects in countries around the world—for example, our big trading partner Japan. They are selling more adult nappies than children's nappies because of an ageing population. So we need to get it right. Importantly, as such, migrant workers will be critical in giving Australian businesses a competitive edge in an increasingly globalised world. Migrant workers are an indispensable part of the economy in my own electorate of Moreton, on the Southside of Brisbane, a flourishing multicultural community with over 40 per cent of residents born overseas. I particularly mention the large Taiwanese community, not only because I've been celebrating Lunar New Year with them but because I've done some work on Taiwanese backpackers and how they've been treated by some farming companies. Taiwan is one of the top five sources for working holiday visas.
Migrant workers are some of the most exploited workers in Australia, with many being systematically denied their basic rights and freedoms by bad employers. This includes gross underpayment, verbal and physical intimidation by their supervisors, many workers being subject to dangerous working conditions, threats of deportation, and even sexual harassment and worse. Migrant workers often speak little English and have limited knowledge of their rights at work, and obviously bad bosses don't make them aware of their rights, or the middle people who rip them off. Migrant workers who wish to continue working in Australia may have their visas leveraged against them by unscrupulous businesses. All of this means migrant workers often feel they have no option but to tolerate unlawful and unacceptable conditions that could even be dangerous.
A national survey by the ACTU which was released in November 2017 of approximately 4,000 temporary migrants from 107 countries found that a quarter of all international students and a third of backpackers earnt only half the wage they are entitled to. That is a depressing statistic. Approximately 15 per cent of migrant workers in the agricultural industry were paid as little as $5 per hour, while another 31 per cent received $10 an hour. If you are familiar with some of those farming conditions, you'd know that you'd certainly earn your money. Two out of five workers surveyed had the lowest paid jobs in the hospitality industry. A quarter of all international students earnt $12 per hour or less. Almost half of all backpackers earnt $15 per hour or less. The then president of the ACTU, Ged Kearney, now our fantastic candidate for the Victorian seat of Batman—go, Ged!— said at the release of survey:
Our broken laws not only facilitate the theft of wages, they have facilitated big businesses importing what amounts to a slave labour class of workers on temporary visas.
Employers are flaunting our laws with alarming regularity and exploiting migrant workers.
A Four Corners episode which aired in 2015 also helped to shine a light on the grim reality of migrant workers in Australia. It revealed that thousands of young workers had been grossly mistreated in the food industry under the working holiday visa program. These workers were taken advantage of by unscrupulous labour hire firms who onsell migrant labour to Australian factories and farms, where many have endured terrible working conditions. In some cases migrant workers were found to be working 22-hour days seven days a week and earning as little as $395. Some migrant workers were refused things like toilet breaks, were charged excessive rent on substandard accommodation and were even asked to give sexual favours to supervisors in return for signing visa applications.
Sadly, this is not an isolated problem. Even in my own electorate of Moreton, there have been terrible reports of migrant worker exploitation. Three food outlets in Sunnybank, the same suburb I have my office in, were found to be paying workers flat rates of no more than $10 per hour. These workers, who were actually entitled to a minimum of $17.70 per hour, were underpaid between $13,880, even up to $45,000. These were serious breaches and resulted in the court imposing more than $200,000 in penalties on these businesses. People should always ask their chefs, if they're in Sunnybank or wherever they are, to make sure their workers are being looked after.
Labor support this bill because we know how important it is to protect vulnerable overseas workers from unscrupulous and greedy employers, from employers who are systematically and deliberately denying Australian migrant workers their rights and freedoms. The visas that apply to collection of tax file numbers will be prescribed by regulation. But the minister has said they will only apply to temporary and permanent sponsored skilled work visas. That means that they will not apply to those overseas workers on working-holiday visas, the subclass 417. So the exploitation of vulnerable workers that I've mentioned, particularly those Taiwanese backpackers picking tomatoes around Bundaberg or other food crops in the Lockyer Valley, could still continue—and I note there are also many Korean workers there as well.
Protecting workers is in Labor's DNA. It is, obviously, the raison d'etre of the labour movement by wholesale. Whether workers are born here in Australia or overseas, Labor will ensure that all workers rights are protected and all workers get a fair day's pay for a fair day's work, as prescribed in the Bible. It is obviously important for the worker, but it's also important for all employers. Employers who are doing the wrong thing are undercutting employers who are doing the right thing. They put at risk the integrity of the entire workplace relations system. They risk distorting the labour market and undermining the principles of fair competition.
Sadly, we have a government, the Turnbull government, that is inept and out of touch. Only the Labor Party has a plan to put local workers first. Labor will ensure that temporary work visas are actually filling genuine skill shortages. Labor will establish an independent authority to advise governments on current skill shortages and future skill needs. Obviously, we would hate for any enterprise to fall over because the skills of certain workers aren't available in Australia, but we've got to get the balance right. Labor will strengthen penalties for employers who abuse the system and exploit workers. Labor will not waive labour market testing requirements in new free trade agreements. Labor will introduce a new science, high-tech and research visa, allowing continued access by the best specialists to collaborate with their Australian counterparts. That's what a globally interconnected, competitive country like Australia needs to do.
So Labor supports this bill because it will help protect Australian workers. But, sadly, I see a government that has failed to ensure that locals get the local jobs first. The Turnbull government needs to go back to the drawing board.
It's quite extraordinary. The member that just sat down is one of the better Labor people in this place, but you can't get away with lying to the public. The hypocrisy of the Labor Party on this issue is towering. The facts are that, when the Liberal government fell in 2011 or 2012, whenever it was, and the Rudd government came in, there were 33,500 section 457 workers.
Yes, it's withdrawn, but I replace it with 'consciously misleading'. He has to know that his government took the number of section 457 visas from 33,510 up to 125,000. He has to know that. How's that for an exercise in staggering and towering hypocrisy? Quite frankly, the honourable member for Melbourne, on my left here—we represent different ends of the spectrum, but there are some things that we passionately agree on, like the undermining of workers' pay and conditions, which one would expect from the Liberal Party. But it didn't come from the Liberal Party. It came from the Labor Party. They were the founders and architects of section 457 visas.
No less a person than the Australian president of the CFMEU, the much-maligned CFMEU, is the only prominent person that I know in this country who's had the strength of character to speak up on this issue. He confronted it here in this place, at a dinner in the function centre. We sat down and on each plate were the words: 'This union will brook no further section 457 workers coming into this country'. Then he said it in a way that was just as aggressive and as confrontational as I'm saying it now when he addressed his remarks to the then Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, who was sitting beside him and who went red and pink and purple in the face. There was not a word from any of the media. They ran around talking about some bloke going home with some sheila after the meeting or something of that nature or I some joke that was off colour. The issue of the CFMEU confronting the government of Australia in the most confrontational manner went by without a single sentence! And the only two people who spoke up in this place were an honourable colleague of mine, quite appropriately on my left, and me. I am quite appropriately on his right. We were the only two who spoke up about it in this place. Is it any wonder that we both have friendships with the CFMEU.
When you walk into this place, Mr Deputy Speaker, there are two magnificent portraits. One of them is of Charlie McDonald, the first member for Kennedy, who, like me, served 25 years in this place. Every time I go past his portrait, if you watch me, I salute Charlie, because six of Charlie's first seven speeches, I am informed in in this place, was railing against people bringing the Senegalese, the coolies and the Kanakas into this country to take our jobs off us and to undermine our pay and conditions for which these men had fought. The entire executive of the AWU in Queensland, in 1893, I think it was, was jailed with hard labour for three years for having a work stoppage. In my homeland of Cloncurry, there was a little station property south of us where a song called Waltzing Matildawas composed. It was about a swagman. There were swagmen everywhere, because they were workers who, during the great shearers' strike, were out of work. Three of the shearers were shot dead in that confrontation.
We went through all those trials and tribulations to watch the Labor Party in this place introduce 150,000 workers, taking jobs off hardworking Australians. I'm sick and tired of people telling me that Australians won't work. It's funny, because 15 years ago they were all working. Fifteen years ago there were no people on 457 visas coming into this country. It is funny that they were working then but they're not working now. You have choice between some bloke who is going to work for you on award wages and someone who has $200 a week taken out of his pay to pay the labour hire company that brought him here, and then of course $70 or $80 of that goes as a kickback to the employer. A lot of employers will house them, they'll provide the accommodation, and there's another $100-a-week kickback. Everybody in this place must know that that's going on.
I praised the Prime Minister of Australia fulsomely for saying that the government is going to cut out this 457 work visa business. I praised him fulsomely. More fool me! The hypocrisy and lies in this place never, ever cease. Well, I suppose he did take them down from 137,000 a year under Labor down to 87,580. But don't tell me the Liberals have cut it out, because that's just a flagrant lie. It's nothing more than a flagrant lie.
There is a reason why the major parties in this place are doomed. I worked on a polling booth all day in the state elections in Queensland and, in a very strong Labor area, I sent our scrutineer back in three times because I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The KAP candidate was on 800, the ALP candidate was on 300 and the Liberal Party was on 100—100!—in a seat that they held some time ago. Up in North Queensland, the KAP are able to get through to the people. We started on the Liberal Party this time, but, believe me, the Labor Party are in our sights right now! It is because of the hypocrisy of these people!
These people—including the great man Charlie McDonald out there, the first member for Kennedy—went to jail, were shot dead, did hard labour for three years of their lives, were never to be reemployed, and their families went hungry. The Liberal and Labor parties in here had sold them out, bringing 150,000 people a year into the country to take their jobs off them and undermine their pay and conditions. That's a direct quote, not from me but from the president of the CFMEU addressing the Prime Minister of Australia sitting beside him.
The government have carried on the policies of the Labor Party. In the last year for which we have the figures, they brought 637,941 people to Australia. So, 640,000 people are coming to an economy that is only generating 200,000 jobs. I will repeat that slowly: they are bringing 640,000 people in each year through migration, student visas and section 457 workers to an economy that's only generating 200,000 jobs and has over 200,000 school leavers each year. So, now we have 840,000 people chasing 200,000 jobs. We all know what that is going to do to the wages, pay and condition in this country.
My family proudly worked like dogs for Charlie McDonald. I'm not going to stand up here and say we were poor people or we were working class, because we weren't. My father's side of the family came to Australia in the 1870s, and within a few years they were very rich, powerful and influential people. Our critics would say, 'The more money in the worker's pocket, the more money was going to flow through your clothing stores.' So, maybe there was self-interest there. Maybe there was, but I am proud that the record reads that my great grandad put 3,000 pounds—over a million dollars in terms of today's money—behind the strike fund. At the end of the day, he was a store keeper. Yes, he had a lot of stores—maybe 20 or 30 throughout Queensland—but he was a store keeper in Charters Towers.
He believed that what was happening in Australia could not go on. And here I am today, standing here, 110 years later, fighting exactly the same battles that my forebears were fighting 110 years ago. I love my country. I love Australians. I wrote a very passionate history book. It was published by Murdoch Books, the most distinguished publication people in Australia. Publishing that book was a very great honour. I called us an incredible race of people. Every person that has actually read the book, when they see me, say, 'I just love that book so much.' That is because they are Australians. They love their country. They love the stories of our country and the heroic battles we had to get decent pay and conditions.
When the much maligned Bjelke-Petersen government went down in Queensland—with a stab in the back, in much the same way that they took out Edward Theodore, the great Labor leader and Premier of Queensland—we had the highest wages paid to any working people in the world, by a long way. That was because we believed in development. We were building 300 or 400 kilometre of railway line every single year so that our people could have jobs and opportunities. What has happened? Successive ALP and LNP governments in Queensland haven't built a single kilometre of railway line. When someone decides to build a railway line now they are going to pay a foreigner to own the whole of the Galilee Basin goldfields. That is their approach to development. Of course, the ALP approach to development is no development—the bludgerigar club. No development. We will create jobs for the people: we will create public service jobs. No-one's ever told them about cannibalism in the economic field. If ever there was a case of economic cannibalism, it would be that.
We are bringing in 640,000 people a year. Where do they come from? In order, China is first. And this is the ALP. And the LNP, because they go home and tell their people: 'The naughty bad, ALP are bringing all these people who are very foreign to Australia into this country. We are going to do something about it.' You're going to do a lot of things, but you haven't done anything. You haven't done anything. I will tell you where they come from: China, India, the Middle East and North Africa, three groups of people that have either no democracy, no rule of law, no Judaeo-Christian belief system or no egalitarian traditions. That covers all three of those countries or areas.
So you are watching the people that are in this place, in the zoo, where the foreign corporations hold the key. We're performing puppets in this place for the foreign corporations that hold the key. What are we doing here? We are completely destroying Australia. Within 20 years, the people that are in this place now will be a minority, and we'll be taken over by people who have no tradition of loving your neighbour, doing good to other people or turning the other cheek; no traditions of sitting in the front of a taxi and believing that all people are equal; and no traditions of democracy or rule of law. They will be a majority in this country. You don't have to be Albert Einstein to be able to multiply 640,000 by 20 years.
There is another little issue. You see, we've had the citizenship issue. The Chinese government has declared all overseas citizens to be citizens of their country. So, if we have 10 or 15 million Chinese in this country that are actually declared citizens of China, through our trade partnerships and agreements and free market—bloody rubbish—they can see you. They set up a corporation here and want to bring all their workers in from China. Under the China free trade agreement, quite frankly, they can.
Let me be very specific. Everyone would have encountered this. I came in at 9.15 one night on an aeroplane into Brisbane. I went to the pharmacy. There were six people working there. None of them spoke fluent English. They were all foreign. I went down to the Red Rooster. I counted 12 people down there. They were all clearly foreign people. I counted two in the after-hours centre. In Bowen and Collinsville, they're putting in foreign solar energy panels. They've all been put in by foreigners. (Time expired)
There are some basic principles that most people would probably think apply in Australia, and they certainly should apply, but I think people would be shocked to find out they don't. One basic principle that I think should be inarguable is that, when the Fair Work Act sets down a legal set of minimum wages, conditions and protections that apply to people who work in this country, and when those wages, conditions and protections are then sometimes increased through enterprise agreements or through other deals, they should apply to everyone, regardless of where you've come from. But that is not the case in Australian labour law.
The reason it's not the case in Australian labour law is that over many, many years we've steadily carved out exceptions to it. We've steadily carved out whole groups of people who don't get the basic protections that you would think that everyone is entitled to. The reason that they don't get those protections and can therefore be paid less than the going rate, less than someone working next to them on a particular project, is basically that they come from another country and our immigration laws, in many cases, override and trump our labour laws, because we've created certain classes of visa that basically allow people to bypass the Fair Work Act and agreements that are in place in this country. For other laws that apply and might give you protections, like the ability to go and work in a union and negotiate your collective agreement, an unscrupulous employer or a big corporation can basically contract out of that in Australia, just by using certain classes of visas.
What we've found is that in some places it's been particularly prevalent—in the offshore oil and gas sector, for example. The Greens have a very strong position around the use of fossil fuels, but, so long as they are there, the people who were working there should at least have the same wages and conditions as people on the mainland, for example. We have laws in place that allow for different conditions to be applied there, provided you've come in and worked on a certain class of visa. We find that now happening regularly on the mainland as well. For all the talk that we have in this country about how we don't want Third World wages and conditions and we don't want sweatshops, what goes unremarked is that we are actually recreating those very conditions in pockets of our own country. This leads to massive exploitation.
We need to lay the groundwork very clearly here. This is not about xenophobia, and nor should it ever be. What we've found is that the people who come here were living in poverty in their country. They have been given an opportunity to come and earn a good wage for them and their families. When they are brought here on these visas, they often get treated in the most horrible of ways. It's not about getting a better life for them; it's about the employer making as much money as they possibly can. So they get brought in. They often get forced to sleep in dormitories and they often get their wages sequestered by their employer. When they twig that in many instances they're getting paid less than someone who is working under a collective agreement, they join a union—and it has often been the unions who have uncovered the exploitation of overseas workers on these visas—and the employer says, 'You can speak up if you want, but if you do you're on the next plane out of here.' So those people coming here and working under those visas are getting exploited. It also serves to help drive down local wages and conditions because employers say, 'If I can get someone in on a visa to do it more cheaply because that's legitimate and lawful, why should I bother paying you the wage of a higher enterprise agreement?' So it exploits the overseas workers and it exploits local workers.
People know that this is going on and know that it happened under Labor and Liberal, which is why they've been speaking up so much about and why it has caused so much consternation. People are asking for the basic principle to apply that, no matter where you come from, you get paid the same wages and we use visas to fill any genuine skill shortages but we don't use them to undermine local wages and conditions. They're pretty basic principles that people have been asking for.
So we find both Labor and Liberal governments who have been perpetuating this scheme being dragged kicking and screaming to do something. When they get dragged kicking and screaming to do it, it's more important for them to be seen to be doing something rather than actually be doing something. So we had, for example, the farce of a big focus on 457 visas, which this bill continues to talk about, while all the other classes of visa go completely unregulated. I don't know if it still exists, but there used to be a game that I would sometimes play at the arcade called Whac-A-Mole. A little mole pops up and you try to whack it. Every time one pops up, another one pops up somewhere else. It's a never-ending game.
This bill and all the rhetoric that has come from this government and from the opposition have focused on 457 visas. That's what this bill is largely about. They forget to tell you that not that long ago the parliament was debating the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. In that agreement is an appendix that says that, for certain classes of workers and certain categories of people, you don't have to use a 457—and we're talking about 400 visas, for example, and other categories of visas. It said: 'Forget about all the restrictions that might be in this legislation about 457s, we're going to grant you a complete exemption.' As a result, under the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement all a Chinese company needs to do is say that they've got someone employed in Australia under a contract, which is anyone, and they get a free pass from all the labour market testing rules and they don't have to advertise locally. And when there are certain categories of people—contractual service providers—who are also mentioned in the appendix to that agreement, you get a free pass from all those rules as well, including this bill, which will do nothing to deal with that. As a result, in the free trade agreement that Labor and Liberal agreed to, for all their rhetoric about protecting local wages and conditions, there are loopholes that trump everything in domestic legislation and allow plane loads of exploited overseas workers to come through and, in the process, exploit them and drive down local wages and conditions.
What we have seen in Victoria is that many of the people who are maintaining our state electricity system have been brought here without advertising for local electricians having been done here first. They have been brought here because it is all being done in connection with an overseas corporation. The unions are the ones that have gone in and found that out. In many instances, there and elsewhere, they have found that the employer is actually doing everything lawfully because the Labor-Liberal China free trade agreement gave them this blanket exemption from labour market testing so they don't have to advertise locally.
What I'm really worried about is that what we are getting from Labor and Liberal at the moment is the xenophobia and the 'Australia first' rhetoric but without the protections. What I would like to see is the protections without the xenophobia. I would like us to actually take some steps to change our laws to ensure basic principles like saying 'advertise locally first and if you can't find someone locally go advertise overseas'. No problem. Or there might be a genuine skills reason why you might want someone from overseas. I talk to medical researchers in my electorate all the time who love the global nature of the workplace. There will be many instances where it is worthwhile exploring global connections, but we shouldn't use visa categories as a way of failing to invest in proper training in this country.
We've completely gutted TAFE. And when Labor and Liberal alike say they'll allow an unregulated and unlimited number of people to come in without even having to advertise locally first, we wonder why people don't want to invest in skills in this country. Why would you? If you are an employer you would be a mug to invest in skills in this country if Labor and Liberal have given you a blank cheque to go and get someone from somewhere else and you don't have to invest locally. So we have got a lot of catching up to do.
We have just seen a mining boom pass us by without having anything to show for it except a hangover in Western Australia where the economy is struggling and nothing is left in the kitty. Meanwhile Norway, which has oil riches, had the smarts to put some of its money away into a sovereign wealth fund and now has the biggest sovereign wealth fund in the world. And here, because the mining companies were so successful in running their campaign against the mining tax—they wrote themselves out of having to pay their fair share—we now find ourselves saying that, if it's a Labor government, maybe we have to cut single parent payments or, if it's a Liberal government, maybe we have to put fees up for people to go and see the doctor. We have left this massive opportunity pass us by. We failed to take some of that money we could've taken from the mining boom and invest in training locally. So we have not only lost a lot of money with 83 per cent of profits from that mining boom going overseas; we have lost a lot of opportunities to skill up our population as well. And now we're playing catch-up.
This bill is worth being supported, because does at least something, but it only does something with respect to a very small proportion of the problem. It is going to allow all the other moles to keep popping up. It is going to allow all the other classes of visas to keep going and causing the problems that they have caused. The labour market testing legislation that we've got in this country, to which the government has been dragged kicking and screaming, applies to a very narrow section of the people who are coming in.
As a result, until we fix it and start saying we should not keep blindly signing up to free trade deals if they are not in our country's interest—and I don't know about the member for Kennedy's party, but certainly the Greens have been the only ones, at least in the Senate, to be consistently voting against these free trade deals when they come in. Until we start saying we can't just keep signing up to free trade deals because big corporations want us to because it allows them to make a lot more money at the expense of people, and until we put things like the TPP on the backburner and say that having what is essentially a global corporate blueprint for the diminution of wages is not a good thing and that allowing companies to sue governments because governments might have the temerity to act in the public interest is not a good thing—until we have the common sense to distance ourselves from these free trade agreements that bind governments' hands and make it much more difficult to legislate for the protection of the population, and until we start getting back to basics and saying, 'Look, the most important thing isn't to have the appearance of doing something and isn't to beat your chest with "Australia first" rhetoric but actually to work out what the problem is and how we can support our young people'—we are going to continue to be in strife.
We now have a situation where the Treasurer comes in here and trumpets the jobs numbers and says the government is doing a wonderful job.
I hear, 'Hear, hear' from the backbench. Let me tell you this: close to one in three young people in this country either has no work or doesn't have enough work—one in three. The number is going up since the GFC. Usually, whenever we have economic downturns, it takes only a couple of years for the situation to right itself, and it hasn't for young people in this country. It is getting worse. When one in three young people either has no work or doesn't have enough, and it's been like that persistently under your watch, we are in strife. Until you find a way of fixing that and start saying, 'Maybe this whole neoliberal experiment hasn't worked out that well at all, and maybe this dog-eat-dog world is not what people in Australia want,' you are going to keep going down in the polls, and the parties that have the guts to stand up to big business on behalf of the community are the ones that are going to succeed.
I rise to sum up on the Migration and Other Legislation Amendment (Enhanced Integrity) Bill 2017. In doing so, can I thank all the members who spoke on the bill for their contributions.
The amendments in this bill are aimed at protecting Australian and overseas workers by strengthening the integrity of Australia's temporary and permanent sponsored skilled work visas. The measures in the bill itself complement and are part of the significant reform package to abolish the subclass 457 visa and replace it with the new temporary skills shortage visa in March 2018. As members would probably know, in part that reduced the number of occupations on the skills list from about 651 occupations down to 461 occupations which became eligible for those temporary short-term visas.
The key measure in this bill is the publication of detailed sanction information, and the aim of this is to deter businesses from breaching their obligations. This is a very important measure, and it's aimed at ensuring that businesses do the right thing. The 457 visa program is there only for when there are no Australians available to fill the skills shortage. If that occurs then, yes, a business can get a 457 visa, but only if that condition is met. If the business breaches those conditions and doesn't properly abide by the law, this bill will now allow that business to be named on the government's website so that other businesses know and so that other prospective employees who may be overseas are aware of that as well.
As I mentioned, this bill is part of a suite of changes which we've made to the 457 visa program. We had some serious concerns in relation to that program, and we've introduced many changes, including reducing the number of occupations on the skilled migration list. More recently we've introduced a measure which will allow more formal labour market testing, and there will be other complementary measures as well, which will be coming forward in the next few weeks. All of those things are done do ensure that Australians have the best opportunity of getting Australian jobs.
We've actually done remarkably well at this, because when you look at the number of 457 visas which have been allocated, you see it is now significantly lower than it was when we first came to government. Last year, for example, only 70,000 457 visas were issued, whereas at the peak under the Labor government 130,000 457 visas were issued. The interesting thing about this is that, while the number of 457 visas issued last year was almost half the number at its peak under the Labor government, it occurred at a time when there was massive jobs growth, with 400,000 jobs created last year, and at a time when the proportion of people on welfare payments dropped to its lowest level in 25 years.
So it's been a great trifecta for the Australian worker, with more jobs being created, more Australians coming off welfare and taking those jobs, and fewer 457 visas issued because Aussies are taking those jobs. It's exactly the reverse of what occurred under the former government, whereby the record number of 457 visas issued back in 2012 occurred while the number of jobs actually declined and while the welfare queues were expanding. It's one thing to need 457 visas and maybe for those lists to grow when there is a very tight labour market, but what occurred under Labor Party is that the welfare queues were growing, the number of jobs was declining and yet they were still issuing record numbers of 457 visas. We're proud of what we have achieved to date in relation to the reforms that we've made to ensure that Australians have the best chance of getting a job in this country and maintaining that job and to ensure they have the best chance of growing and developing themselves and improving their wages in the process. This bill assists with that process.
I mentioned that publication of detailed sanction information is the most important measure here, but there are also a number of other measures in this bill. It provides certainty around merits review by clarifying that review rights are determined at the time a decision to review a visa is made. A third element of the bill will allow the Department Immigration and Border Protection, now the Department of Home Affairs, to collect, record, store and use the tax file numbers associated with temporary and permanent skilled visas. This will improve the department's ability to verify that businesses who sponsor overseas workers are complying with their sponsorship obligations and that the skilled visa holders comply with their visa conditions. Tax file number will also improve the department's ability to undertake research and trend analysis, which will provide an additional evidence base for the department in developing skilled visa policy. These measures collectively strengthen the integrity of skilled migration visa programs and protect Australian and overseas workers.
This government has a very strong track record in jobs creation, in getting people off welfare and into work, and only where absolutely necessary issuing 457 visas when no Australian is able to do the job. That's what we're about. We're about Australians getting Australian jobs, improving their wages and improving their opportunities, and this bill goes towards that.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.