Monday, 26 October 2020
Private Members' Business
That this House:
(1) notes that the:
(a) exploitation of migrant workers on short-term visas in the Australian horticultural sector is an ongoing priority for the Fair Work Ombudsman and is the focus of a recent inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Migration; and
(b) COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the reliance of the Australian horticultural sector on overseas workers, where up to 80 per cent of the harvest workforce comes from overseas on short-term visas;
(2) calls on the Government to:
(a) identify and implement measures that will lead to a sustained improvement in the number of Australians who work in the Australian horticultural sector, including in seasonal work such as fruit-picking;
(b) take immediate action to identify and eliminate exploitation, underpayment and mistreatment of seasonal horticulture workers, particularly migrant workers on short-term visas; and
(c) take immediate action to properly regulate labour hire companies involved in the recruitment and management of migrant workers in Australian horticulture; and
(3) further notes that workforce shortages are now so dire for the current harvest that without urgent action, growers face significant hardship and consumers face higher prices.
We know what the problems are; we've been told what is needed. All we need to do now is act. We've heard the horror stories, and here in my left hand are just some of the press clippings and articles of recent years that detail the level of exploitation, the harassment, the filthy living conditions, the illegal pay and the exorbitant rents. We know what the problems are.
In 2015, the ABC's Four Corners reported on 'the dirty secrets behind Australia's fresh food'. The program centred on modern slavery in the global fresh food supply chain but it also touched on migrant worker exploitation within Australia. In November 2018, the Fair Work Ombudsman found widespread non-compliance along Australia's harvest trail, recovering $1 million in unpaid wages for more than 2½ thousand workers. It took legal action against eight employers for serious alleged breaches of the law, resulting in more than half a million dollars in penalties. The FWO established a stakeholder reference group, which met six times before ending in August this year, but the FWO states it remains committed to improving compliance.
In March 2019, Professor Allan Fels AO and Dr David Cousins AM co-authored the report of the Migrant Workers Taskforce, commissioned by the government following widespread public allegations of migrant worker exploitation, particularly in the retail sector. That report provided 22 recommendations, all of which the government said it supported in principle. Nineteen months later, there has been no movement on those recommendations and no reason has been given for the delay. There are 22 recommendations sitting there waiting to be implemented.
In February this year, the national agricultural workforce committee released a discussion paper ahead of its expected completion of a workforce strategy in July. The release of that final report has also now been delayed till the end of this month—so, there are four days to go before that, too, is late.
In August, the United Workers Union provided a submission to that workforce strategy process. This comprehensive submission includes compelling data that outlines in stark relief some of the issues facing the sector, and who knows how many of the union's recommendations—if any—will be put forward by the report's authors. Importantly, the UWU submission provides practical, realisable recommendations for structural change that will fix labour supply shortages in Australian agriculture. There are too many to mention here.
Just weeks ago, the Joint Standing Committee on Migration released an interim report of its inquiry into the Working Holiday Maker program. It made a number of recommendations, some of which have been immediately implemented by the government.
The purpose of this private members' motion is not to allege that nothing is being done but that what is being done is not enough and that it is being done too slowly. Anyone with a fruit grower in their electorate knows that we face critical labour supply shortages this fruit and vegetable picking season, which is already upon us. In Tasmania, the fruit growers have a Rescue the Season campaign where they are seeking $1.8 million from various governments to provide shuttle services for 1,000 workers over the months of January and February to make sure workers can get on farm. The fruit growers in my electorate and in my state are absolutely desperate. What we know is that up to 80 per cent of Australia's harvest workforce comes from overseas on short-term visas. It's a mix of working holiday-makers, backpackers and seasonal workers from the Pacific. COVID-19 has seen that labour pool dramatically shrink. Ernst & Young told us last month that we are likely to be 26,000 workers short over the next six months. In Tasmania we are facing a 7,000-worker shortage. The result could be devastating, both economically and psychologically, for those involved.
We're faced with two issues. First, we need people on the ground right now. We need them on the fields right now. The season is upon us, and the government needs to do much more to get people on the ground. Second, and just as important, the government needs to make long-term structural changes to the industry, to the sector, so that we can encourage more local workers to get involved. That means better wages, better conditions and more secure work. That's what we need to do to encourage an agriculture system that is fit for purpose for the 21st century.
As I said before we were interrupted, it's great to be given a chance to talk on this very important issue. In the Goulburn Valley, come December, January and February this is going to be the No. 1 issue in our agricultural sector. If you read this motion, you'd be totally misled about the issues facing the fruit industry. If you read this motion that has been put forward by Labor as being worthy of debate, you'll see that they talk about the exploitation of migrant workers as being the most important thing. On our migration committee we've heard that this is a minuscule issue. Yes, it does happen, but it's absolutely minuscule. Yet the Labor Party want to blow it up and make it into something that it purely is not. It's deceitful to give it prominence as the No. 1 part of this motion.
The motion then calls on the Australian government to start work on a whole range of initiatives and incentives that are going to bring more Australians back into this work. You couldn't possibly get more incentives or initiatives put forward by any government to encourage Australians to do fruit picking.
If the member who put forward this motion actually knew anything about this industry, he would know that the most important issue here is what he rates as the least important issue—that is, the millions and millions of tonnes of fruit on trees at the moment that we need to get picked. We need to work out how we're going to avoid an absolute catastrophe within the agricultural sector. We understand that we are 26,000 workers short in the horticultural sector. To get this fruit off the trees it's going to take 26,000 workers. Yet the Labor Party want to talk about how we're going to identify and eliminate exploitation, underpayment and mistreatment.
We've heard evidence about the so-called squalor of people's living conditions. We've heard that people's living conditions were knocked back as being unsuitable because there wasn't a curtain ring in the accommodation. We have to put some reality around this issue. It is too important an issue to play politics with. All of a sudden we have an opposition that wants to blow up issues that simply do not exist. We're talking about an incredibly critical issue. We would normally have an additional 80,000 backpackers—very resourceful. Well, they are not going to be there; we all know that.
The big missing piece of this argument is also the compliance of the states and what type of imposition is going to be put on our states' agricultural sectors by their health sectors, and this is certainly playing out in Victoria. We have an agricultural minister that's making all the right noises about how she can help get a workforce to get these crops off. Yet, everywhere we move with Victoria, we run into these incredibly tough quarantining procedures that are going to prohibit people coming down from other states that are going to prohibit people from coming in from COVID-free countries. It is just as if they are playing games with this and they don't realise that people's livelihoods are at stake. The federal government has opened up the Pacific Islander program and it has engaged 14 countries now. They are all putting their names forward that they want to be a part of this program. What is Victoria doing about organising the quarantining program? Absolutely nothing. What efforts are they putting into going out to recruit a workforce? Absolutely nothing.
What we do hear is all about this so-called exploitation of migrant workers. We already have the fair work office concentrating their efforts on this all the time. We have recently recommended that we introduce a one-stop shop to put greater compliance and make it even clearer for anybody who comes from overseas, where you need to go if you have the slightest concern about your conditions, whether it's about pay, whether it's about your accommodation or your transport or anything. As a government we are trying to make it as easy as we possibly can for everybody. But we need to make sure that more and more people right around the world understand that Australia is a very safe place to come, to pick fruit, to work, to make real money for your family. If anything is wrong with that, we will jump on you. But we need to get these crops off.
That was an extraordinary contribution by the previous speaker. I hear his frustration; I really do. But I would respectively say to the speaker that the federal government, of which he is a part, has responsibility for most of the areas that he claims are failing. The federal government has responsibility for that, not the state governments. If you are a member of the government and you don't believe your government is doing a good enough job, then perhaps the people you should be speaking to are the ministers who actually have the power to solve these things—if they have the imagination, the courage and the will to do it. Don't blame the states. Don't blame everybody else. Don't blame Labor opposition for it. Blame yourselves. You have the power to fix it.
This issue of migrant workers, particularly on farms, has been around for a while. I will only touch on it briefly because I want to talk about another group that is also being exploited at the moment. Way back in August 2017 there was a court case. I have an article in my hands here entitled, 'Hungry, poor, exploited: alarm over Australia's imported farmworkers'. It talks about people being here for six months and walking out of Australia with $150 in their pocket after virtually being exploited the entire time. Another headline, 25 April 2019, is 'Migrants trapped in slave-like conditions at Aussie farms'. Another media report, October 2020, 'There are no human rights here: inside the government's exploitative backpacker visa scheme'. Of course, they are talking about a federal government visa scheme there, not a state government scheme. So this issue has been around for a long time. If now it is causing people in the rest of Australia to wonder whether going to a farming community to pick fruit is a good idea or not, then that is on the government that has been in for seven years and that has not dealt with this in the way that it should have. They agreed to 22 recommendations and a few years later they have done virtually nothing. This is on the federal government.
Workers in the horticultural sector are not the only group of workers in Australia that have come from overseas for whom the government shows an extraordinary lack of regard. I'm referring here to the international students and the skilled visa holders who came to Australia because we needed them, just as the horticultural workers did. They came to Australia and contributed to our economy and our society by doing so and, when COVID struck, the federal government—and it is their responsibility—walked away. They walked away from people who had come to Australia—who had been invited to Australia, had been asked to come to Australia—for the benefit of us, and the government walked away.
Early on in the crisis, in late March and early April, Unions NSW surveyed 5,000 temporary visa workers. Sixty-five per cent of them had lost the job; 39 per cent did not have enough money to cover basic living expenses; 43 per cent were skipping meals on a regular basis; and 34 per cent were already homeless or anticipated imminent eviction because they could not pay rent. That was in March and April, and we are now a number of months further down the track. I am hearing every day from people who are providing food to international students. I delivered some food parcels about six weeks ago, and I found two-bedroom houses with three families living in them. These were people who had no work, having lost their work because mainly they were in hospitality, and students who had paid to be here who had lost their jobs, who were effectively homeless. One of those couples had a newborn. You come home from hospital with a newborn in a country that you thought welcomed you and you share a two-bedroom house with two other couples who also had four children.
This is the world that we are in now because this government has no regard whatsoever for the people that it asked to come here and that we needed to come here. Australia is so dependent on foreign workers. We are one of the biggest employers in the world. I want to give these figures because they are really interesting. This was 2018, We are a country of 25 million and the US, which is known for its foreign worker programs, is a country of 330 million –more than 10 times greater. We have 163,000 international students and they have 360,000, a little over double. They are more than 10 times our size with a little over twice the number of students. We have 397,000 temporary visas, including seasonal labour workers, and they have 724—not quite double. So we are a huge employer and a huge user of people who come from overseas. We need them to come here. We've invited them, and this government has no regard for them. I would ask them to consider how they would feel if their children—their 18-, 19- or 20-year-old children—had gone off to work elsewhere and they had been treated like this.
I rise to speak on this motion as the chair of the Joint Committee on Migration, and I have to say that I was a bit annoyed when I saw the text of this motion, because this motion, this represents the work that the Joint Committee on Migration is doing. The Joint Committee on Migration is not enquiring into worker exploitation; it is enquiring into the working holiday-maker visa.
The economic growth as a result of that visa from the tourism side alone is worth $3.1 billion to the national economy. Sixty per cent of all farms in Australia are dependent on working holiday-maker visas to do some of the agricultural work. The benefit to the agricultural, hospitality and tourism sectors is massive, not to mention the very important benefit that we have in terms of soft power diplomacy by people having a cultural experience in Australia, including a great on-farm experience.
We have delivered an interim report, not a final report. In the interim report we had one paragraph on the issue of worker exploitation—and, for the record, let me read that to you. It said:
The Committee is in the process of hearing evidence about allegations of exploitation of WHMs. Over the last few years this has been a serious issue and has been the subject of investigations by the Fair Work Ombudsman and a Migrant Worker Taskforce chaired by Professor Alan Fels AO. The Committee is considering those reports and their implementation, and will have more to say in the final report.
Let me be clear: if you are on a working holiday-maker visa, the same industrial laws that apply to you are the same industrial laws that apply to an Australian and the same industrial laws that apply to somebody working in the cities and that apply to every member of this parliament. If there is a boss that has done the wrong thing, we should throw the book at them. There is no excuse for this. But I think what has gone on here in some sections of the labour movement that do not like the working holiday-maker visa—that wants to abolish the working holiday-maker visa—is that they have overplayed their hand on quite legitimate concerns about worker exploitation in order to add to the case to remove this visa.
I want to give him some perspective on the level of work exportation that came from the evidence that we received at the committee from the Fair Work Ombudsman. The Fair Work Ombudsman said, in response to questions on notice, that six per cent of all formal disputes during the year 2019-20 involved allegations in relation to working holiday-makers—six per cent of all their cases, and yet it is the major issue that we hear about from people in the labour movement about working holiday-makers.
We also hear it's a very big issue in agriculture. But the facts don't bear that out as well. In 2019-20 the top five industries for completed FWO formal disputes involving working holiday-makers were: accommodation and food services, 29 per cent; administrative and support services, 14 per cent; construction, 12 per cent; agriculture, 12 per cent; and retail trade, eight per cent. So while it is an issue—and I don't wish to downplay the issue; as I say, we should throw the book at anybody who breaks the law—I support the working holiday-maker visa. It is absolutely vital to the future of our country. It's absolutely vital to the agricultural and tourism sectors.
I acknowledge my friend the member for Bennelong, who's been an active member of that committee. We made a series of recommendations to restart the agricultural industries that are affected by the shortage of working holiday-makers, including extending the visas of working holiday-makers who are presently here and allowing other people on temporary visas to have extensions or changes made to their visa arrangements if they go out and work in the agricultural sector in hard-to-staff areas. We also encouraged the very innovative Have a Gap Year at Home campaign, to encourage young Australians to go out and see our country, pick some fruit and do something to help our country at a time when one of the absolutely iconic industries of our country—agriculture and horticulture—desperately needs the help of our young people. All of these recommendations have been responded to and the government has supported all of these recommendations, which is a terrific thing.
None of these recommendations in total will solve the agricultural labour shortage that we have on our farms. That's why we want to see the Working Holiday Maker program restart. That's why announcements that the government has made about the Pacific Labour Scheme and the Seasonal Worker Program have been so important. While not downplaying the issue of the importance of worker exploitation, it's disappointing to get this particular motion distorting what the work of the committee is all about. It is about the working holiday-maker visa. It is about getting the fruit off the trees. It is about something which is good for Australia's relationships with 40-odd other countries and is also good for very important sectors in our economy like agriculture and tourism.
I want to commend the member for Lyons on his important motion, and add my voice of support to it. The exploitation of migrant workers on short-term visas in the Australian horticultural sector is abhorrent, and it needs to stop. This is Australia, the first country on earth to elect a Labor Party—our great party. But we're now almost a quarter of the way into the 21st century, and the exploitation of workers has absolutely no place where our laws obtain. It has no place on our farms, on our ports, in our trucks, in our planes, in our factories, in our CBDs or in the Public Service down the hill from here. It has no place, whether you're an Australian, a permanent resident or a student driving for Uber Eats just to get by during COVID. It has no place in Australia, whether or not you're an Australian. That's one of the things that makes Australia such a wonderful country. It's not that we don't have abusive or corrupt individuals in business or government; it is that we don't tolerate them. We should never tolerate them, or else the rot sets in. If we lose that, then there's not much left to fight for here in our lucky country.
As the motion highlights, the Australian horticultural sector relies heavily on these overseas workers. Up to 80 per cent of the harvest workforce comes from overseas, on short-term visas. We saw the importance of that workforce, to which we owe a fair wage and a hospitable welcome, to our economy this year; it is very important to our economy. During the fires, Vanuatu seasonal workers in Wagga faced the same fight against nature as Australians. Then, in the Northern Territory, Vanuatu seasonal workers came back to help our mango farmers. Our Territory businesses have faced one of the toughest years in memory, due to the pandemic, because the pandemic sent about 50,000 backpackers home. Arriving on 3 September, 160 seasonal workers were amongst those whose hard work is getting you the beautiful Kensington Pride mangoes that you see at your local shops. Regional governments have expressed concerns about the abuse of seasonal workers' rights, for which there can be no tolerance. We need to treat these workers well. They are helping our businesses as well as feeding us. If not for them, a lot of this produce would end up on the ground.
This motion highlights the urgency of implementing measures to achieve a sustained improvement in the number of Australians who work in our horticultural sector, including as seasonal workers, going from, say, Melbourne up to the Territory. This is the most viable and sustainable long-term solution to an economic, industrial and trade problem that isn't going away any time soon. I firmly believe that young, patriotic Australians, including students, as well as international students, living in our cities can be incentivised to go and work on a farm for three to six months. There are ways for a visionary government to achieve this—a little investment, some sustained training programs, the promotion of a sense of civic service. A little national vision would be the Tassie cherry on the cake. I'm sure the member for Lyons would agree with that. All of these small steps would mean that, next time a harvest is about to rot on the ground, as it almost did on many farms in the Territory, the first line of defence against multimillion-dollar loss wouldn't be the flexibility to cobble together a deal at short notice but would be a bottom-up swell of young Australians and young people from elsewhere flocking to the country areas of Australia, particularly where there is agricultural produce, to help out. I think this can be entirely commercially viable, and I think it's a national imperative if we're to grow our horticultural sector, especially for the juicy export markets.
Australia is proud of producing more than we eat and feeding our hungry Indo-Pacific region and countries further afield, but, if we're to achieve this increased export strategy, we'll need the Australian and temporary seasonal workforce to lift productivity and avoid the risk of farmers being slammed each time there is market volatility or labour shortages.
I like the member for Solomon. He's a good fellow. The last part of that speech was almost Churchillian, but it was also romantic and it was also wrong. Unfortunately we don't get Australians onto farms. We get some. I've never picked fruit, I don't think, except in my mum's garden. My daughters have, at St George, definitely. I used to drop them off. I'll tell you who was there. There were a few local students from the high school or back from university, which included my daughters. There were a couple of pensioners, but they were usually pretty good. They were kind of professional. They worked with a timer on their hip and they knew how long they had to pick a box and they knew the speed they wanted to go. They were almost like professional pickers. Everybody else in that paddock, in that field, was from overseas.
I take the interjection. He said 'a visionary government'. I want to get that on the record, because that's what we need and that's what we're going to deliver. People just don't want to do the work. You'd go back into town in St George and it was terribly frustrating. There were people who were unemployed, but there was a job just down the road. In fact, there were jobs all around them. One of the problems was that it gets a little hot at St George from around nine o'clock on in summer. It's pretty hot. It gets up into the 40s and stays there. They start in the dark and they knock off at two o'clock and go home because it gets hard. A lot of people just don't want to do it, so we've got to try and work our way around that.
What you find with horticulture is it becomes the basis of so many towns. It's a big part of St George, and even in Guyra. St George is out in south-west Queensland—it's big there. They've got grapes out at Cunnamulla. But if you go to the highest part of Australia, to Guyra, it's a big part of it there as well. There's huge tomato production at Guyra, in glasshouses. If you go down the hill, there's huge blueberry production in my electorate, and just across the way in the seats of Cowper and Page, where the Sikh community have been instrumental in the growth of the blueberry industry.
Both sides seem to be saying we've got a problem that we need to fix. Well, let's fix it. We can't fix it unless we get tens of thousands of backpackers into Australia, because they're the ones who are going to pick the fruit. In fact, you even know at what stage and what country you want them from, because you know the sort of job they do. At certain stages, there are certain people from certain countries who get through it very quickly, and at other stages there are other people do it a bit more precisely and pedantically. But if they're not here, it doesn't get picked.
This is an issue not just for the farmers, because there's no money on a tree and there's no money on the ground; there's a money in a bank. The only way to get into a bank is if you sell the product. The only way you can sell the product is if you pick the product. We eat about four times as much as we export. So when you go into the shops and you go to the vegetable section, that's the Australian section overwhelmingly. So if we don't pick it—don't think it's just about helping backpackers or helping exports—it's not helping us, because it's our food. It's our food that's rotting on the ground. What's going to happen to the prices if you can't get these crops off? They're going to go up. If the prices go up, who's that going to hurt? The person with a lesser amount of money than most of the people in this chamber. That's the person who it hurts. It's a vital part of your diet, your fresh vegetables. It's not just important for the Goulburn Valley or the Murrumbidgee or Guyra or Tabulam or Tully, where the bananas are, or the tropical fruits on the Atherton Tableland; it's important for everybody who has dinner. For everyone who has dinner we've got to find a smarter way to get these people in.
I understand the issues of the conditions which people work under. That's something that has to be monitored, and we've got to always make the case that they're being looked after. But we can't use that as a stalling factor. We are really at the critical stage here. If we do not get these people in, if we do not work around the bureaucracy and become a little bit adroit and adept at how we're doing this job, then this fruit is not going to get picked. It's going to absolutely kick in the stomach the economies of places like Shepparton. It's going to be a disaster for other places, whether it's from Atherton to Tully to Guyra, you name it, because horticulture is everywhere. It seems like a job we can do, and hope we've got the smarts to do it.
I'm pleased to speak in support of the motion moved by the member for Lyons. Whilst the federal electorate of Moreton doesn't have a lot of farms, we do have Brisbane Markets, where a lot of the produce picked around Queensland and northern New South Wales goes through to be sold. The other reason I'm particularly interested in this topic is because I have a significant Korean community and Taiwanese community, and many of the backpackers who have come previously are Korean or Taiwanese and are supported by my community. In fact, I have been on two trips with representatives from those communities to talk to Korean and Taiwanese and other backpackers in and around Bundaberg and in the Lockyer Valley, because there were many tales coming in of people being exploited over the years.
As we've heard from other speakers, a significant part of the Australian economy relies on these migrant workers coming on these short-term visas. They make up about 80 per cent of the harvest workforce, which employs around 40,000 backpackers in an ordinary year, I concur with speakers on both sides who would like to see more Australians doing this work.
I come from St George, which the member for New England was talking about, and I did farm work for most of my life from grade 10 on. That was what paid my way through university. It is hot, hotter than hell, up to 44 or 45 degrees, and it does make for long days doing that work. I can understand why people would not want to make a career of it, but we have to get that balance right. Obviously there is something that will always make these jobs more attractive—I think it's the market mechanism that involves paying workers more money. I believe that has been trialled over the last 5,000 years or so, and it seems to be an effective way to increase the number of people willing to do a job. But, I know that it is difficult.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made this an extraordinary year. Obviously the Prime Minister shut the borders very early in the piece, and that meant those travel restrictions are a problem for our farmers who do rely on those 40,000 backpackers and others. There are obviously fewer of them around. And we did have that horrible situation where the Prime Minister said to these people, 'Go home'—I think they were the actual words out of his mouth. I don't think more damage has been done for the Australian travel product than when the Prime Minister actually engineered the So Where the Bloody Hell Are You? campaign. That was a horrible thing for a prime minister to say and no message to give to people who are often our best ambassadors when they return to their countries. Whether it be the Pacific island countries or others—and I know the member for Berowra touched on this in his contribution—that soft diplomacy is important so that we use all of the things we have available to make sure that we make our region stronger and interconnected, because there are some other nation states that don't always have the best interests of Australia at hand, obviously.
That Ernst & Young report seems a long time ago, but they were saying we'd need an extra 26,000 workers. Things have moved on so much since then. They made that projection thinking that the global labour market would open up in March. Well, things have not gone that way at all. I know that worker exploitation is a problem and, to the farmers' credit, I will say often it is an intermediary. We actually heard people were more likely to be exploited by someone from a dodgy labour hire company that spoke the language of the worker who arrived from another country rather than the farmer. I think some farmers did close their eyes to what was going on in their fields, particularly when it came to some of the horrible working conditions and the exploitation. As the member for Berowra suggested, we do have some industrial cops on the beat, but it's hard to get the information in the hands of the workers. It's hard to put the industrial rights in their hands, and the horticultural award is a difficult award. We even had The Sunday Mail in Queensland totally misrepresenting what the piecemeal rate in the horticulture award is on the front of The Sunday Mail. So people can easily get this information wrong, particularly if English is your second language.