Monday, 11 September 2023
Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023; Second Reading
I want to make a few brief remarks to put the Greens position on the record, especially given that the position we take today may not necessarily be the position that we'll take in the Senate, and I want to explain why. The Australian Greens welcome the important dialogue that the Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023 has given impetus to, as with the Migration Arrangement (Protecting Migrant Workers) Bill 2023 before it, which had similar provisions. But, just like with the 2021 bill, this bill will not fix the myriad and systemic problems that have been identified through these important dialogues.
The Australian Greens are also broadly supportive of the 2019 report of the Migrant Workers' Taskforce and the recommendations it made. The bill before us today is in response to recommendations 19 and 20. Recommendation 19 read:
It is recommended that the Government consider developing legislation so that a person who knowingly unduly influences, pressures or coerces a temporary migrant worker to breach a condition of their visa is guilty of an offence.
And recommendation 20 read:
It is recommended that the Government explore mechanisms to exclude employers who have been convicted by a court of underpaying temporary migrant workers from employing new temporary visa holders for a specific period.
But sanctions and compliance are only as good as their enforcement—and what is unknown can't be enforced—and this is where the bill fails to live up to the government's rhetoric. The bill relies on the meek and maligned existing assurance protocol, which is an arrangement between the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Department of Home Affairs that supports visa holders who've breached a condition due to workplace exploitation. Under the protocol, the department will not usually cancel a visa if the holder has breached a condition. However, this protocol has only been invoked 77 times from 2017 to 2021, because it can only be invoked at the discretion of the Fair Work Ombudsman. Many migrants and their lawyers understandably don't trust the process.
This is why any legislation seeking to encourage migrant workers to blow the whistle on exploitative employers needs to have guaranteed protections against visa cancellation. But all this bill provides are speculative and discretionary powers to exploited migrant workers who have been coerced into breaching their visa conditions by exploitative employers. Without guaranteed protection against visa cancellation, unions and legal advocates will have to continue to warn potential migrant worker whistleblowers that, by reporting their exploitation, their visa may be at risk of cancellation. And that's why this bill will fail to live up to the government's hype.
The Australian Greens are particularly disappointed that the majority report from the inquiry into this bill by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee didn't make a recommendation to remove these speculative and discretionary powers, given that that was the recommendation of every academic, trade union and legal advocate that provided evidence. Accordingly, the Australian Greens will be supporting this bill's passage and its purported objectives throughout the House today; however, we reserve our position in the Senate.
I'll start off by saying that exploiting another human being is wrong, and no-one in this place should say or think otherwise. This is the core of this bill. Exploitation thrives on vulnerability and inequality, and it's time that we stand up against it. Every person, no matter where they come from, deserves respect. When we look at migrant workers, we know that one in six recent migrants to Australia is paid less than the minimum wage. That's one in six. Despite working the same job and having the same experience, they get underpaid. There's no doubt about that. They're the facts.
Temporary visa holders make up four per cent of the workforce, but, when you look at all litigation initiated for breaching the Fair Work Act in the 2021-22 year, they make up 26 per cent—over a quarter. So you have to ask yourself: is this the Australia that we aspire to be, a nation that allows a significant portion of its workforce to be exploited, underpaid and denied their basic rights? The answer is unequivocally no. This is not okay. I know that it's not all employers—the majority do the right thing—but, when you see that 26 per cent of all litigation initiated in breaching the Fair Work Act involved migrants, then we know there's something terribly wrong. That's what this bill is all about: fixing that wrong, making sure that people are paid fairly and aren't underpaid, and ensuring that this big number of underpaid people is basically stopped. A nation that allows a significant proportion of its workforce to be exploited, underpaid and denied basic rights—as I said, the answer should be unequivocally no.
In my electorate of Adelaide I've met many hardworking individuals who seek nothing more than what they rightly deserve. They don't ask for any special treatment. They seek fairness and dignity alongside their colleagues. It's wrong to exploit vulnerable people who perhaps don't understand the law or are tied to work by a particular type of visa so that they are petrified to speak out. This must stop.
This isn't just the opinion of leaders in the unions. People in other areas have made their position loud and clear. It's basically about what's right and what's wrong. Recently I attended the 2023 regional migration conference, which was held in Adelaide. This issue was raised by migration lawyers, migration agents and other people that are in this space. It's a prime example of how powerful it can be to have people from all different areas in work and life in one room, and many stories were shared that day. One strong point was made clear. It's no secret that there are strong links between migration, globalisation and sustainable development. Migrants have always brought and will continue to bring attributes that have a positive impact on our economy, on the Australian workforce and on the communities they live in. So neglecting the migration system not only hurts migrants but also hurts the Australian workforce.
From my experience of being for a number of years on the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, I understand how important it is for Australians to not only welcome highly skilled migrants but also protect them in our workplaces. We have a duty to do so. It's not acceptable for any worker to endure mistreatment, underpayment or exploitation—we heard about many examples of this when I was on the migration committee—and that standard does not change for those who come to our shores in search of a better future. They should not be denied their rightful share of the prosperity that they actually help create.
This Albanese Labor Government is committed to rectifying this injustice, and that is what this bill, at its core, is all about. This bill ensures that we're taking concrete steps to ensure that every worker, regardless of their background or visa status, is treated with dignity and fairness because we believe in a society where the rights of workers should be and are uphill and we believe in a society where exploitation is eradicated.
No-one should stand for deceitful contracting or the unlawful seizure of passports. We heard many stories about people going to perhaps a remote place to pick fruit, to work on a farm or to do other work, where their passports were taken from them. There were many, many accounts of this happening. There have been incidents of harassment and even acts of assault, just to name a few of the things that I've heard in my electorate office and on the migration committee. These accounts are not sporadic occurrences. They represent the daily ordeals faced by numerous temporary visa holders in Australia. Again I say that this is not all employers; the majority are good employers paying the proper wages et cetera. But, when it is 26 per cent of all litigation through the Fair Work Commission, you know there is a problem. That's why this bill is here today.
I was in Brussels last year, and there was a meeting with the mayor of one of the municipalities who I knew from years ago. We'd had some connection through some international conferences. At the end of the meeting he came up and asked to see me. He was telling me about his daughter who had come out here backpacking and fruit picking and what had happened to her. It was very embarrassing to be there, in front of an international community, with this mayor telling me the story about the tribulations of his daughter, who had her passport taken away by her boss and hadn't known where to turn or what to do. I was hearing this firsthand in Brussels.
As I said, these accounts are not sporadic occurrences. This happens on a regular basis, and we must put an end to it. We're resolute to the commitment of putting an end to this unfairness. So this bill is also introducing new criminal offences to hold accountable those who exploit vulnerable individuals based on their migration status within the workplace. This aligns perfectly with recommendation 19 of the report from Professor Allan Fels, which is entitled Report of the Migrant Workers' Taskforce. In addition, the bill is equipping authorities with new tools to prohibit employers engaging in exploitation practices from hiring workers on temporary visas for a defined period. This corresponds to recommendation 20 from the taskforce, reflecting our determination to shield vulnerable workers from continued exploitation.
We're recognising the necessity of imposing more substantial penalties for those who engage in these unethical practices. To bolster enforcement, the Australian Border Force will receive new compliance tools, ensuring that employers who exploit workers face the appropriate consequences. Furthermore, steps will be taken to repeal a portion of the Migration Act that inadvertently criminalises workers for breaching their visa conditions. This prevents people from speaking up. It prevents people from going to the authorities. It prevents people from perhaps even joining a union or speaking out. It was an outdated provision. I'm pleased that it's going because it discouraged individuals, as I said, from speaking up about exploitation. So, to rectify this, the bill is instituting safeguards to protect workers who bravely report exploitation from visa cancellations. We've seen it being used continuously. We've seen stories in the media. We heard stories during the migration committee hearings of the threats of cancelling visas or taking away their visas if they didn't comply or spoke out. So the aim is clear. This bill is dedicated to protecting workers' rights and their dignity. I know that by supporting this bill—you'd think everyone in this place would be supporting it—you respect workers' rights. Where their contributions are valued is exploitation becomes a thing of past.
The bill addresses the recommendations made in the Report of the Migration Workers' Taskforce, as well as additional measures that will tackle the exploitation of vulnerable workers on temporary visas. It will establish new criminal offences and associated civil penalties to deter employers from using the visa condition or status to coerce, unduly influence or unduly pressure someone in the workplace. It will establish a new mechanism to prohibit an employer from hiring any additional people on temporary visas for a period of time. That one is really important because, if you're doing the wrong thing, you shouldn't have the opportunity to hire anyone else until you're doing the right thing. So that's a good measure in the report and in the bill. We're also increasing the maximum criminal and civil penalties, as I said, for all current and proposed work-related offences and provisions in the Migration Act. We're creating additional tools for the Australian Border Force to address employer compliance and repealing section 235 of the Migration Act, which makes it a criminal offence to breach a work related visa condition. We are revising the regulation-making power in the Migration Act to ensure that workers exploitation must be taken into consideration for visa cancellation decisions.
At the heart of this bill is fairness and equity for all workers, regardless of where you've come from and what sort of work you're doing. It's at the core of our Australian way of life. Every worker should be paid equally with rights and conditions to ensure that no-one is exploited, especially vulnerable workers, people who have come from overseas, whether they're on a temporary visa or some form of bridging visa. We need to ensure that their rights are protected, not only because they are vulnerable and may not know the law but also because it is really important to empower them to speak out when something is being done wrongly to them at their workplace. I commend this bill. I'd like to think that everyone in this place would support it, because at the core of it is equality: equal pay for the same sort of work for any citizen of Australia and anyone who's here for temporary work.
I stand to contribute to the debate on the Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023.
I speak on the subject from experience. Many in this place already know my story. Out of all the lands across the world, my parents decided to make Australia home. This was back in 1976. While I have Goan Indian heritage, my parents grew up in Kenya. My parents migrated to Australia via Africa. When my dad, who is a metalworker, went to the Australian Embassy in Kenya, they said to him, 'You've got the right skills, but you're the wrong colour.' That was, of course, because we still had the White Australia policy in place. When the Gough Whitlam government dismantled the last parts of this policy, that's when my parents decided to come to Australia.
My parents migrated to Kalgoorlie. My dad came first. He was working at Mount Charlotte. It was a pretty exciting time. He had a wonderful boss. My mum and my sister came later. When they rocked up to Kalgoorlie, dad had heard they were coming, but there was no accommodation for them. The company that dad was working for was supposed to arrange it, but for some reason or another it didn't fall into place. The single men's quarters were exactly that: a place for single men, not a place for families. My dad's anxiety and stress increased. Clearly his performance must have been impacted at work. Bob, dad's boss, said: 'Joe, what's the matter? Why are you worried?' Dad explained that there was no accommodation for his wife and daughter. Luckily, Bob stepped in where the employer did not and provided accommodation for my mum and sister. It's hard to know whether this was a deliberate attempt from the employer or whether it was an oversight. But one of the things that we have seen in Australia is systematic exploitation of migrant workers.
This Albanese Labor government wants to ensure that we look at the structures that are in place and make sure that we make them fairer for all people, including new migrants who come to Australia. The truth is that this country has been built on the back of migrants. There's amazing work that has been achieved through the use of migrant workers. We want them to continue to contribute to Australia. This is the reason why we're looking at this bill. Once again, we are at a time in our economy when businesses are screaming out for skilled migrants to help plug skills gaps.
Sadly, often what we see for many migrant workers in our country is that the fair workplaces of Australia are not their lived experience. I know about a Sydney childcare centre operator who failed to pay two employees, under the premise of it being a volunteer arrangement. They were fined $30,000 in penalties and were ordered to provide backpay. I also know about a major waste company that was charged with allegedly underpaying five vulnerable migrant workers a combined total of $190,000. In my home town of Perth, I know of a disability service provider that was fined and ordered to pay back six migrant workers from India and Ireland that it had systematically underpaid for a five-year period. These are not isolated cases.
The Grattan Institute report in May this year explained that exploitation, underpaying and unscrupulous treatment of migrant workers by employers is widespread. It reported that recent migrants to Australia are twice as likely as long-term residents to be underpaid, and up to 16 per cent of recent migrants are paid less than the national average.
Migrant workers are more vulnerable than other workers. Why is this? The office of the commissioner of human rights explains that migrants are at heightened risk of exploitation and abuse in the workplace because of vulnerabilities unique to their temporary visa status. This can include a number of different things, such as deceptive recruitment practices by employers, a lack of social supports and systems and connections to the community to understand what the norms are. Sometimes there are cultural and language barriers, and often there's a lack of awareness of their work and legal rights and also a limit of access to those services. There is also this fundamental power imbalance. The fact that they're dependent on their employer for their visa status makes it a really challenging work environment. There's often a reliance by family members on migrant workers to send money back to their homes by remittance.
Current penalties on employers for exploiting these vulnerabilities are, frankly, soft. The Grattan Institute argues that they are not at all a deterrent. It compares the $4 million worth of penalties handed out to unscrupulous employers of migrant workers in 2022 with the $3 billion in fines issued by the Australian tax office to people who have not paid their taxes. This soft approach to worker exploitation is, frankly, unacceptable. People need to be put first. This is why we need to pay this crisis the attention it deserves and make the legislative changes that are needed to put an end to exploitation. The Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill does exactly that. I commend Minister Tony Burke, Minister Clare O'Neil and Minister Andrew Giles for their collaboration in bringing forward this bill. I acknowledge the work they have done in engaging with civil organisations, unions and industries to develop legislation to alleviate the crisis of exploitation and to implement measures that will strengthen the compliance of employers to the fair and just treatment of migrant workers.
The recommendations in the bill have the support of the Grattan Institute, which has called for these reforms through its advocacy work to the government and to industry. I commend them for their work in this space and their dedication to improving the treatment of migrant workers in Australia. This bill will strengthen the compliance of employers with regulations that seek to protect vulnerable workers. The Fair Work Act and the Migration Act will work hand in hand to penalise employers who do not comply with the law.
This bill addresses the discrepancy and implements recommendations that were included in the 2019 report by the Migrant Workers Taskforce. They are recommendations to the former Liberal government which were accepted in principle but failed to be implemented. It's another example of the coalition not following through with action, doing the review but not following up with legislative change. It is a continued theme of the wasted decade under the coalition government, and I don't think it's because the coalition government was pro exploitation. I don't think that's the case. The truth is I don't know the precise reason for their failure, but the thing I can say about the 47th Parliament is that it is the most multicultural parliament we've ever had in Australia. This means that we have more people from diverse backgrounds making decisions and we're thinking about the impacts of these policies to make sure that we actually see what Australia looks like today, but also how we want it to exist in the future.
This crisis of exploitation of the rights of migrant workers that was caused by the 10 years of neglect by the Liberal government was a continued theme, but thanks to this Labor government it will now be a criminal offence for someone to unduly influence, pressure or coerce a temporary migrant worker to breach a condition of their visa. Thanks to this Labor government, employers who have been convicted of underpaying temporary migrants will be prevented from employing new temporary visa holders for a period determined by the court.
This bill has also thought carefully about how these measures will be enforced. In order to ensure the Australian Border Force is properly resourced, $50 million will be allocated over the next four years to enhance its role in employer compliance. The Grattan Institute reports that migrant workers know that they're underpaid but they don't act. Under amendments to the legislation made by this bill, migrants should have no fear in acting against their employers who are underpaying them. This bill will go further to introduce additional measures to tackle the exploitation by employers of workers on temporary visas. The removal of the section in the Migration Act that makes it a criminal offence to breach a work-related visa condition means that workers will not need to fear criminal sanctions for speaking up against a work related condition of their visa when that condition is a product of an exploitative work environment. This is a big step towards making sure that some of the most vulnerable workers in our country—migrants and temporary visa holders—are supported in speaking out.
Prior to the pandemic, migrants accounted for a growing share of Australia's workforce. The exploitation of this section of the workforce doesn't only affect them; it hurts all workers by driving down wages and worsening employment conditions for everyone. When the most vulnerable parts of our community are strong, all of Australia is strong. People come to Australia because they believe in this fundamental principle of a fair go, and that's essentially at the heart of this bill. It's about fairness and equity, and that's something that the Albanese Labor government believes in. Not only do we believe in it, but we are prepared to act on it by strengthening these laws to ensure that migrant workers are not exploited. I think this is a wonderful bill that the migrant community will welcome. I commend the bill to the House.
I rise to speak on this important bill about preventing the exploitation of migrant workers. The Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill is part of the Albanese government's package of reforms to tackle the exploitation of workers. It implements key recommendations from Professor Allan Fels's Migrant Workers Taskforce report. I want to commend the Minister for Workplace Relations, the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs and the Minister for Home Affairs, and the hardworking public servants in their departments, for their work in bringing this bill together. After a decade of neglect, the Albanese Labor government is cleaning up the former coalition government's mess. This bill responds to a report that was handed down in 2019. It took the former government two years to introduce a bill, and then the bill was not even brought on for debate, let alone put to a vote. We saw that happen so much in the last parliament. This sums up the former government's attitude to tackling exploitation. It's another example of those opposite sitting on their hands and looking the other way as a crisis worsens.
It is obvious that only Labor governments will stand up for workers facing exploitation—workers like Ramadan, who came to Australia in 2018 and worked in a restaurant. His boss promised that he would be sponsored to get a permanent visa in Australia. He was paid in cash, and amounts were deducted for accommodation and 'visa fees'. What money was left Ramadan sent overseas to his wife and daughters. When the restaurant went through a quiet period in January 2019, Ramadan's boss stopped paying him. Ramadan's questions about his unpaid wages were met with his boss telling him that if he wanted a visa he should keep quiet. Months passed, and Ramadan's family kept asking for money. He asked his boss again. His boss said that the business could not pay him and he was going to close. Ramadan asked about his visa and was told that it was with the department of immigration. He contacted the department and found out that no application had ever been lodged.
Another example of an exploited worker, as reported by the Guardian, is a person who goes by the pseudonym Esther. Esther came to Australia to study business and was also a qualified chef. Using her qualification she found work quickly, working in a Korean restaurant in Sydney to support herself through her studies. Her student visa mandated that she work no more than 40 hours a fortnight, but her boss forced her to work more than 40 hours and threatened to sack her if she did not comply. Esther's boss also told her that if she left she would not be able to get any other job, as he would tell other employers not to hire her. The award that Esther was working under mandated a minimum pay of $23.64 an hour; however, she was only paid $15 an hour. She had no ability to raise these issues with anyone, under the threat of losing her job, not finding other employment and being reported for working more than her visa allowed. The article reports:
She said working conditions were oppressive: staff were shouted at and abused, told they were hopeless and constantly threatened they would be dismissed for "working too slowly".
Esther said she and other workers were abused regularly and kept in a climate of fear. Esther said that she and her colleagues were worked like slaves, were always hurried and weren't given any time to eat lunch or dinner or even go to the toilet. Esther was kept in a constant state of fear and tiredness from being overworked without adequate breaks. She said that these conditions caused her to stop eating. She lost significant amounts of weight and couldn't sleep from the stress.
Another example is that of Joe, whose story was also reported in the Guardian. He was regularly exploited in a series of jobs across Sydney and was sacked when he spoke up. Joe notes that exploited workers were 'controlled from the minute they arrive in Australia'. He said:
Agents are closely connected with the exploiters themselves, and everything is organised, right from the beginning. When people arrive at the airport there is somebody there to take them … to accommodation.
Joe describes the accommodation as like a slave camp, with seven or eight workers crammed into a room to sleep. He describes being woken up very early in the morning and driven to a building site to work. He said that he felt confused about where he was and who he was working for:
These are like forced labour camps, it is like slave labour, these people aren't free at all.
According to the article, Joe said that in some cases migrant workers have their passports taken from them:
They are not given employment contracts, and there is no agreement on conditions or rates of pay. The face exorbitant deductions from the money that they are paid for rent, food, or other expenses.
Joe also spoke about other workers:
… particularly students studying in Australia, find jobs through the Korean local media, where jobs are advertised in Korean without any reference to award rates, or conditions. Some openly advertise pay rates as low as $12 an hour … workers are often kept in bleak conditions, crowded into already-overfull houses, especially in the Sydney suburbs of Strathfield and Lidcombe.
Joe said that these rooms are so small, exploited workers cannot even stretch their legs: 'Animals should not be kept like this, let alone people.'
This bill will implement reforms to ensure that workers are treated better than this. Part 1 of the bill amends the Migration Act to add new criminal and civil offences concerning coercing people to work in breach of their visa conditions or using their visa status to exploit workers. The penalty will be up to two years in prison or 360 penalty units. This is an important deterrent to employers who think about exploiting workers due to visa conditions.
Part 2 of the bill amends the Migration Act to prohibit employers and individuals from hiring future workers on temporary visas. New prohibition notices will enable the minister to declare employers and individuals to be prohibited from hiring new workers on temporary visas for a period of time. Employers and individuals will be subject to these discretionary prohibition notices when they are found to have breached migration and employment law. Triggers for prohibition will include court orders and noncompliance with employment and migration law. This is an important step in protecting workers, filling the gap in legislation so that employers who have been sanctioned under the Migration Act can be prevented from hiring more international students or backpackers.
Part 3 of the bill amends the Migration Act to increase penalties for work related breaches to align with the maximum penalties available under the Migration Act. Specifically, the penalties will increase from 60 units to 240 units.
Part 4 of the bill amends the Migration Act to introduce enforceable undertakings for work related breaches. The Fair Work Ombudsman already successfully uses enforceable undertakings as a tool to promote compliance with the Fair Work Act in other areas. This amendment will ensure that migrant workers can also be protected by this tool, and this reform will be implemented by the Australian Border Force.
Part 5 of the bill amends the act to make work related offences and provisions subject to compliance notices. A compliance notice is a formal notice to employers who breach relevant Migration Act and migration regulation rules. Compliance notices are already successfully used to promote compliance with the Fair Work Act and will work to protect migrant workers as well. This reform will also be implemented by the Australian Border Force.
Part 6 of the bill will amend the act to allow exploitation of a worker to be considered as a potential mitigating factor when a visa cancellation is under consideration. This will send an important message to migrants on temporary visas who are worried to speak up—that their visa will not be cancelled if they are being exploited.
This bill is supported by many groups, including the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the Migrant Justice Institute, the Human Rights Law Centre and the Grattan Institute, as well as by the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance, the peak body for the horticultural sector, a sector which employs thousands of migrant workers.
This bill adds to the Albanese government's broad reform agenda to the migration and visa system—reforms such as this government slashing the visa backlog that we inherited from our predecessors. Less than 600,000 visa applications are currently being processed, down from just under a million when we came to government, after we invested in our Public Service by adding 500 more staff to address this backlog. Temporary skill shortage visas for health and education workers are being assessed and finalised in days, rather than the months it took under those opposite. We increased the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold to $70,000—the first increase since the last Labor Government in 2013. Finally, we have abolished the AAT, after those opposite politicised the institution. These reforms have allowed for more skilled migrants to come to Australia and increase our economic productivity.
This bill, and our wider reforms, are making our economy fairer and reducing the amount of exploitation in the workforce, because it is only fair that people who come as temporary migrants be treated with the same respect and rights as other workers in our economy. I am so proud to be a part of a government that takes this issue seriously and that hasn't sat around for three years without even introducing a bill into parliament but has responded with urgency to this, because these people matter. We want people to see Australia as a welcoming place and a place where people are treated fairly, as, after all, most Australians pride ourselves on our nation being the place of the fair go. So this bill is putting into practice a little bit of that, ensuring that temporary migrant workers are not exploited, as in some of those terrible examples that I talked about. I'm very proud that our government is tackling this issue head on and improving the conditions for migrant workers.
Like the member for Canberra, I, too, am proud that our government is taking this issue, particularly the exploitation of workers, extremely seriously. I want to thank her for her advocacy on this. She cares very deeply about fairness and seeing that people are properly remunerated and are not exploited, and I join her in that worthy cause. As the member for Canberra mentioned, we are the nation of the fair go, but it does not just happen by itself. You've got to act. You've got to show leadership, in order to bring about the conditions by which fairness reigns.
For almost a decade, we saw a situation where not enough was done in this sector, in this area of concern, and, unfortunately, exploitation was allowed to take hold in different parts of our economy. That is a shame, but what is done is done. We are getting on with the job, because it is up to us, as the federal government now, to fix a lot of the loopholes and to reform acts of parliament that will tackle this issue of exploitation of workers in our nation.
Now, one in six recent migrants to Australia is paid less than the minimum wage, and of course this exploitation doesn't just hurt the individual worker but effectively drives down wages and worsens conditions and pay for all Australian workers. That's why it should matter not just because of the humanity of making sure that we look after people in accordance with the law but so that we make sure that we have a fair and just society. We see exploitation all around us, and we are committed to addressing it.
The bill will implement key recommendations from Professor Allan Fels's Migrant Workers' Taskforce report. There are new criminal offences for using a person's migration status to exploit them in the workplace, and that is recommendation 19. There is a new tool to prohibit employers engaging in exploitative practices from being able to hire workers on temporary visas for a period of time, and that is recommendation 20 from the task force. The bill will go further. There will be higher penalties for those who do the wrong thing. The ABF will receive new compliance tools. We will repeal that part of the Migration Act that that was effectively criminalising workers for speaking up and we will encourage workers to speak up and report exploitation by putting in place appropriate protections from visa cancellation.
This bill is one part of our government's plan to protect workers. In the 2023-24 budget our government provided $50 million to the Australian Border Force over four years. The ABF oversaw a month of action in July, targeting those employers who were suspected of doing the wrong thing. For the first time in a long time the government is raising awareness of employer obligations and getting out and visiting businesses in a substantive way. This work would not have been possible without the increase in funding in the previous budget and the prioritisation this government places on tackling worker exploitation. In addition, the government has been engaged in an intensive co-design process with industry, the union movement and civil society to help inform the design of further safeguards in the visa system. We want to make it is safe for people to speak up when they are being exploited in the workplace. We are exploring a potential new visa for workplace justice as well as ways to make sure people can feel confident that their visa won't be cancelled for speaking up.
Through consultation we know there are gaps in what workers understand as well as what some employers understand. We know many people don't know where to go if something is wrong. It is not good enough that recent migrants are 40 per cent more likely to be underpaid than long-term residents with the same skills and experience and who work in the same job, according to a Grattan Institute report. It is also not good enough that one in six recent migrants are paid less than the minimum wage. In fact, it is shameful. Temporary visa holders make up four per cent of the workforce, but in the year 2021-22 they made up 26 per cent of all litigation initiated for breaching the Fair Work Act.
We need a migration system that works for everyone. Under paragraph 245AAA of the Migration Act, new criminal and civil offences are being introduced concerning coercing people to work in breach of their visa conditions or using their visa status to exploit those workers. The penalty will be up to two years in prison or 360 penalty units. That is an important deterrent to employers who think about exploiting workers due to their visa conditions, and we all know that it is happening. Under paragraph 245AYA of the Migration Act, new prohibition notices will enable the minister or a delegate of the minister to declare employers and individuals to be prohibited from hiring new workers on temporary visas for that period of time. Employers and individuals will be subject to these discretionary prohibition notices when they are found to have breached migration and employment law. Triggers for prohibition will include court orders and non-compliance with employment and migration law, and, where employers and individuals are subject to prohibition notices, the minister must publish the relevant details on the department's website. This is an important step, an accountability step, as there is currently no ability to prevent employers who have been sanctioned under the Migration Act from hiring international students or backpackers, despite the vulnerability that we all know these workers face.
Penalties are increasing for work based breaches, to align with the maximum penalties available under the Migration Act. This will see penalties increase from 60 units to 240 units, a substantial increase. This will send an important deterrence message. From paragraph 245ALA of the Migration Act, work related offences and provisions are being made subject to enforceable undertakings. An enforceable undertaking is a written agreement between an entity or person and the government. The Fair Work Ombudsman successfully uses enforceable undertakings as a tool to promote compliance with the Fair Work Act—that is, with the law. This amendment will seek to use similar provisions under the Migration Act by the Australian Border Force. This will provide the ABF with additional tools in their enforcement approach.
From paragraph 245AYP of the Migration Act, work related offences and provisions are also being made subject to compliance notices. So it is enforceable actions and compliance notices. A compliance notice, of course, is a formal notice to employers who breach relevant Migration Act and Migration Regulations rules. This will provide the ABF with additional tools in their enforcement approach as well. Under section 116(1A) of the Migration Act, the exploitation of a worker will be able to be considered as a potential mitigating factor when visa cancellation is under consideration. This will send an important message to migrants on temporary visas who are worried to speak up that their visa will not be cancelled if they are being exploited.
Work conditions can't be a race to the bottom. That's why the government has introduced this bill into parliament to help workers speak up and target employers who do the wrong thing. There is a crisis of exploitation at the moment, with up to one in six recent migrants paid less than the minimum wage—as I mentioned before, but I think it's worth mentioning again. It is a shocking statistic. When migrant workers are being underpaid, it hurts all of us, driving wages and conditions down.
For a decade those opposite, the former coalition government, put the safety of migrant workers on the backburner. These reforms will help workers speak up and target those employers who do the wrong thing. Over the last 10 years, our migration system has drifted deeper and deeper into a reliance on low-paid temporary migrant workers, who we know are routinely exploited, under a government that simultaneously did nothing to prevent this exploitation. This indifference stops with our government. That's leadership.
We are in consultation on systemic changes to our migration system which will ensure it works in the best interests of Australian workers and businesses. We are also doing the necessary work to ensure that no-one who comes to this country is exploited or abused. The fact that this has been happening almost unchecked in our migration system in recent times is a reflection on the competency and values of the former government.
Exploiting workers is never acceptable. We are committed to stamping it out wherever it's happening and protecting all workers working in Australia, regardless of their migration status. After that decade of neglect, our government is cleaning up the mess of those opposite. Despite the national debate in the wake of the 7-Eleven scandal, the former coalition government, those opposite, sat on their hands. The former Liberal government failed to implement key recommendations from the Migrant Workers Taskforce, which reported to the Morrison government in 2019. Two years later a bill was introduced, but, as was so common with that government in particular, the bill was never even put forward for debate, let alone put to a vote or pushed into the Senate. That is another example, if anyone needed any, about the attitude of the former government to tackling exploitation. They preferred temporary visas to permanent visas, making it easier for unscrupulous employers to target vulnerable workers, when what we all want to see in this country is for some permanent migration that is skilled to come in and help us build our wonderful nation. We certainly don't want to see people exploited.
There was a massive backlog created, as my friend the member for Canberra articulated well, of almost one million visa applications. Those opposite neglected basic administrative tasks by looking the other way, and, as a chief of the army once said, if you're looking the other way, that's not leadership. The previous government neglected workers by failing to act, and we are fixing that. I commend this bill to the House.
We had a citizenship ceremony in parliament this morning, and it was a wonderful thing to see citizens swearing their allegiance and being part of this country in a permanent way. I'll be attending a number of citizenship ceremonies on the weekend in the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury. I regret to say that it's probably a reasonable assumption that, among the group of people I will see sworn in, there's a strong chance that at some point in their journey, or their family's journey, in migrating to Australia, they have suffered exploitation at the hands of a worker, because the statistics of the exploitation of migrant workers are quite frightening.
We know that recent migrants are 40 per cent more likely to be underpaid than long-term residents with the same skills and experience and who work the same job. We also know that up to one in six recent migrants are paid less than the minimum wage. I thank organisations and researchers, like the Grattan Institute, for looking into this and helping to put more data around a very grey area. Temporary visa holders make up four per cent of the workforce, but, in 2021-22, they made up 26 per cent of all litigation initiated for breaching the Fair Work Act, and that's data from under the Fair Work Act. That's government data that tells us that. That's why the Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023 is so important. It's important for anyone who has chosen to come to Australia and work, whether they're a backpacker or an international student, or they're on a working visa, because those people are way more likely to be exploited.
It's certainly not to say that every employer is doing the wrong thing. We know they're not. I was a sponsor of an overseas worker some 20 years ago, with whom I still have a very good working relationship. There are so many employers who will do the right thing. I know, in my electorate, when employers ring me and say, 'We're hoping to be able to get this person's visa so they can come and work here'—or get it extended, and all those things—it's because they genuinely value that worker. But, sadly, the data shows that it's not just the odd case of exploitation. There has been widespread exploitation, and some sectors are much worse than others. I think many of us will recall hearing stories in this place in recent years from workers who had been on farms picking fruit. In the agricultural sector, there have certainly been stories that have been shared with all of us. But, as I say, it is widespread.
What makes me really angry about that sort of exploitation is obviously the effect on that person. It is an appalling thing to happen. It also undercuts all the businesses who are doing the right thing. It makes an uneven playing field, and it not just hurts individual workers but also drives down wages, worsens conditions for all workers and creates a very uneven playing field for businesses. We are committed to addressing this inequity, and this bill implements the key recommendations from Professor Allan Fels' Migrant Workers' Taskforce report. It introduces new criminal offences if a person has their migration status exploited in the workplace. That's recommendation 19 from the task force. There's also action on recommendation 20 with a new tool to prohibit employers engaging in exploitative practices from hiring workers on temporary visas for a period of time.
The bill will go even further. There will be higher penalties for those who do the wrong thing. Importantly, the Australian Border Force is receiving new compliance tools because it has a key role in enforcing this. We'll repeal a part of the Migration Act that makes it a criminal penalty for workers to breach their visa conditions, which effectively criminalises speaking up. We don't want that to happen. We want workers to be able to speak about what occurs, and we'll promote workers so that they can speak up and report exploitation by putting in place appropriate protections from visa cancellation, because they live in fear. They live in fear that the dream that they had of coming to Australia will end because an employer is doing the wrong thing by them. Their desire to be here is so strong that they will often put up with really appalling situations.
This bill is one part of our plan to protect workers. In the 2023-24 budget, the Albanese government provided $50 million to the Australian Border Force over four years. The ABF then oversaw a month of action in July, targeting employers who were suspected of doing the wrong thing. For the first time in a long time there is a government that is raising awareness about employer obligations and actually getting out and visiting businesses in a substantive way. The work would not be possible without that increase in funding for the ABF and the priority that this government places on tackling worker exploitation.
We've also engaged in intensive codesign around this with industry, unions and civil society to help inform the design of further safeguards in the visa system. We know we don't have all the answers, and we have a commitment to working with those involved to make sure that it's safe for people to speak up when they are experiencing exploitation or when they're witnessing exploitation. We're exploring a potential new visa for workplace justice as well as ways to make sure people can feel confident their visa won't be cancelled. We know there are gaps in what workers understand as well as in what some employers understand, and we know many people don't know where to go if something does go wrong. These are many of the things that we will work on—some of them in this bill and some going forward.
I just want to speak in detail about a couple of the measures in this bill. On the role of the ABF, you have to be able to go into workplaces and have people trained and skilled to investigate these matters. We have determined that the Australian Border Force is the lead agency for this. They will be out there enforcing the law when it comes to employers who choose to do the wrong thing. For too long the consequences have really just been a slap on the wrist. The chances of getting caught have been very, very small, and that really goes to the situation that we inherited when we came to office.
Under the previous government, it was essentially an area of deep neglect. As with many other things, we are trying to clean up a mess that we were left. The former Liberal government oversaw a crisis of exploitation and did very little about it despite the national debate in the wake of the 7-Eleven scandal, where we learnt what was happening in that franchise group. In spite of all the evidence being laid out, the former Liberal government did nothing. They sat on their hands and failed to implement the key recommendations from the Migrant Workers' Taskforce, which reported to the Morrison government in 2019. It's not like they ran out of time to do something; they simply chose not to. Two years later, a bill was introduced, but it was never even put forward for debate, let alone put to a vote or pushed to the Senate. It was just, 'We'll pretend we're doing something,' and that sums up the former government's attitude to tackling exploitation. They also prefer temporary visas to permanent visas, which makes it easier for unscrupulous employers to target these vulnerable workers. We were also left with a backlog of a million visa applications, and that is symptomatic of the sort of neglect that was shown. That's why the role of Border Force in enforcing this is really key.
The other measure that I want to refer to is the prohibition measure. The taskforce report recommended exploring ways to exclude employers from employing more workers who hold a temporary visa, for a specific period of time, where the employer has been convicted by a court of underpaying migrants. It seems a pretty reasonable thing to do, and that's why we are doing it. The new prohibition measure will prevent employers and other third parties from hiring any temporary visa holders where they have a conviction for exploiting workers. At the moment, the only bar under the Migration Act on hiring is for sponsored workers, such as those who hold a temporary skills shortage visa, but the new measure will prevent prohibited employers from hiring non-sponsored workers who hold any form of temporary visa, including international students. If I were a parent wanting to see my child study in Australia, I would hope there were protections that would save them from rampant exploitation. The prohibition will be in place for a specific period of time, and, importantly, a list of prohibited employers will be published on the Home Affairs website. These are some of the practical, sensible, reasonable measures in this bill, and they will make it better for workers coming from other countries on temporary visas or as international students or backpackers to be treated with respect and dignity, which is what every single worker deserves.
I will know that this legislation and the other package of measures that we're taking are effective when we see an end to the fear: an end to the fear of workers, in this case migrant workers, speaking out about what they have experienced; an end to the shame that is attached to it; and an end to the anxiety and sense of dread that they have when they're in a situation where their work is not being respected. As the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs says, work conditions can't be a race to the bottom. When migrant workers are underpaid, it hurts all of us. These reforms will help workers speak up and target those employers who do the wrong thing, and I'm very proud that it is an Albanese Labor government that is making these important changes.
I am proud to stand today and speak in favour of this bill, the Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023. I'd like to be clear from the outset that migrant worker exploitation in this country is a crisis, and it's completely unacceptable. We heard the member for Macquarie go through the most recent statistics about exploitation of migrant workers, and I thank her for bringing those statistics to the attention of this House. One in six recent migrants are paid less than the minimum wage. You don't have to stretch the imagination too hard to grasp how difficult that would be for people who uproot their entire lives and come from all sorts of circumstances for the chance of a new life in Australia only to be ripped off by their employer. We know that the consequences of exploitation mean being forced back to work, to work gruelling hours, or to put up with other forms of unacceptable workplace conduct, like bullying or even being injured at work.
The exploitation of migrant workers affects us all. It harms communities and it undermines employees' ability to bargain. In fact, as the Director of Labour Market Enforcement in the UK recently stated:
Exploitation of workers is not just an offence against the individual—which is serious enough. It also undermines the competitiveness of compliant businesses who treat their workers fairly and with consideration. Worker exploitation can also have a destabilising impact on whole communities.
Exploitation does not happen necessarily behind closed doors. It does not happen quietly or by accident. It's happening to workers that we interact with every day, commonly in hospitality or accommodation services, but even more broadly, in my experience, in areas like aged care, in health facilities and even in manufacturing. And I want to especially highlight that it was people on visas who were delivering essential services during the pandemic—stacking shelves, caring for the vulnerable, staffing our hospitals. But they're scared to speak out when they're unpaid, underpaid or mistreated and this has to end.
To make matters worse, due to a decade of inaction and ineptitude by the coalition government, this kind of practice has become commonplace. You could almost call the exploitation of migrant workers the Liberal-National business model. Not only did they systematically deconstruct our migration system, they nodded and smiled and agreed with expert advice and then failed to act.
I'll assist the House and withdraw that comment. But the Liberal-National parties, when they were in government, did definitely fail to implement key recommendations from the Migrant Workers' Taskforce that reported to the Morrison government in 2019. They did fail to act, and they left these migrant workers at the mercy of unscrupulous employers.
Two years later a bill was introduced, but, as is so common with the former government, it was never even put forward to debate, let alone put to a vote or even tabled in the Senate. We shouldn't be surprised. They used to call a press conference. They would appoint an expert. They would say some big words. And then they would let an important report gather dust. I'm sure they were very busy when they were ignoring the task force's recommendations and not bringing the bill on for a debate, but they did create a backlog of almost one million visa applications. They neglected basic administrative tasks. And they turned a blind eye. But now we are going to act. It's critical that we do.
The chair of the Migrant Workers' Taskforce, Professor Allan Fels, said recently: 'This exploitation has been a severe problem for at least 10 years. There have been huge numbers of underpaid and exploited migrant workers and nothing was done about it. Now it is extremely timely because of the expected increase in migration.' As the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs said, 'There is a crisis of exploitation in Australian workplaces.'
I have spent much of my life standing up for the rights of workers right across this country. As federal secretary of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Association and for a decade as president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions I saw time and time again exploitation of workers under the coalition government that was absolutely unacceptable. Let me tell you a little bit about what I saw. I saw exploitation of aged-care workers, where they came into this country on temporary visas, were promised that if they did training courses with the provider they would be registered as RNs. Apart from that bit being absolutely untrue, they were told if they worked three-month internships unpaid that they would then get their certificate and their wish to become registered here would come to pass. This, of course, was untrue.
We found rotating workers working for nothing in aged-care facilities. The whistle was blown on this practice by good union members who worked alongside these workers. They saw the exploitation and were not prepared to put up with it. They contacted the union and blew the whistle. We were able to mitigate that and stop that practice happening. I saw nurses from China who were sent to the outback without any training in rural and remote nursing, working as hard as they possibly could with very little time off. They had their wages docked for 'expenses'—outrageous amounts of money taken from their pay packets for things like accommodation, food and other expenses. Again, union RNs blew the whistle on this practice. The union was brought in, and we were able to help.
I heard terrible stories. I met with workers at a factory who pulled up stumps and went on strike because a worker on a temporary visa was sent into a very unsafe situation in a factory. He was told that it cost too much to turn the machines off for him to get in there and clean underneath the machine. It was actually a chicken decapitating factory—I don't mean to get too explicit about this. As a result of those blades spinning around and the employer not turning off the machines, that man was killed. He was too scared to speak up. He was too scared to say, 'This is dangerous.' He was too scared to say he didn't want to go in there and clean that factory floor, because he thought he would lose his job. He thought his family would be unsafe back home. He wanted to stay.
This bill is so important because of all the people that have been exploited. It enhances the ability of our visa and enforcement system to stand up and tackle worker exploitation, and it focuses on targeting employers and third parties who misuse our migration program. The bill aims to strengthen employer compliance and ensure that businesses that do the right thing and abide by the law are not undercut by competitors who are not upstanding and who set out to undermine workers. In the case of the so-called traineeships and the internships, for example, who can compete with slave labour? Nobody.
This legislation enacts two key recommendations from the Migrant Workers' Taskforce report:
It is recommended that the Government consider developing legislation so that a person who knowingly unduly influences, pressures or coerces a temporary migrant worker to breach a condition of their visa is guilty of an offence.
It is recommended that the Government explore mechanisms to exclude employers who have been convicted by a court of underpaying temporary migrant workers from employing new temporary visa holders for a specific period.
We see exploitation all around us, and this government is committed to addressing it. The bill will bring in new criminal offences, implementing a recommendation of the Migrant Workers' Taskforce, making it an offence for a person to knowingly pressure or influence a worker to breach a condition of their visa. It gives effect to the recommendations I just mentioned. It increases the penalties for employers who do the wrong thing and misuse our migration program and migration rules. It gives the Australian Border Force tools to support employers to do the right thing. Importantly, it repeals section 235 of the Migration Act, which criminalised speaking out. We know this is a barrier for workers. We know workers have been afraid to speak out and report exploitation. In our national workplace relations system, laws should apply to all workers, regardless of their visa status.
I'm proud to stand in this Labor government and with ministers who are delivering on our commitments, as we promised to do at the election, and this is one of them. Since coming to government, the Albanese Labor government has worked tirelessly to slash the visa backlog. We've reduced the number of pending visa applications, from one million to 600,000. Temporary skill shortage visas for health and education workers are underway. We've given TPV and SHEV holders a pathway to permanency. We have flagged our intention to increase the number of community sponsored visas for asylum seekers, over and above the humanitarian intake. We've reduced our citizenship backlog to the lowest level in six years, and we've given 380,000 New Zealanders a pathway to citizenship in Australia.
This government was elected on a promise to get wages moving, and that's exactly what we've done. To do that, we need to close the loopholes that undermine wages. One of the first things we did after forming government was pass the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Secure Jobs, Better Pay) Bill. Because of our government's reforms, Australian workers now have access to a better workplace bargaining system, which will help lift wages, improve job security and close the gender pay gap. The 'secure jobs, better pay' bill is also about in enshrining gender pay equity as an objective of the Fair Work Act. We've abolished pay secrecy clauses. We've introduced 10 days of paid family and domestic violence leave, which is so important. No woman should ever have to choose between her job and her safety. This entitlement is now enshrined in the National Employment Standards for around 11 million employees. We've invested a record $11.3 billion to pay for a 15 per cent pay rise for aged-care workers, a workplace where I know many migrants find a career.
Our latest industrial relations bill will tackle the issue of and criminalise wage theft, it will look after gig workers, it will stop labour hire companies from undercutting hard-fought-for EBA conditions and it will change the definition of 'casual worker' so that a casual worker can actually be made permanent. This bill is a natural extension of all of those other bills that are making wages and conditions better and keeping workers safe. As the minister for immigration said, 'We cannot build our nation on the back of those being exploited.'
I'm proud of the work this government is delivering for Australian people. I'm certainly proud to recommend this bill to the House today.
I'd like to commend the speech by the member for Cooper. She has dedicated so much of her working life to eradicating worker exploitation and ensuring that there's fair treatment of workers right across this country, and she is a source of inspiration to many of us in this House.
I also rise today to speak in favour of the Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023. The Albanese government recognises that Australia's long-term economic prosperity cannot and should not be achieved through the exploitation of migrant workers. For those of us in this House who are committed to being good neighbours, this is where we can start ensuring that we are good neighbours—by making changes to this incredibly troubling practice that has unfortunately grown over the last decade.
What we know is that one in six migrants are paid below the minimum wage, the wage that we know is the minimum for a family to potentially get by on in a frugal way. Regrettably, most of these workers will be too scared to question this, too scared to speak to a union and too scared to speak out because of the potential consequences. Some employers will even threaten them with a phone call to the Australian Border. The prevalent theft of wages among migrant workers equates to an economic race to the bottom. No-one wins. Our neighbours don't win. It undermines the institution of our minimum wage, and it punishes employers—the majority of employers—that are doing the right thing. If the economic viability of your business is based on underpaying vulnerable migrant workers, then your business model is deeply flawed.
This bill amends the Migration Act 1958 for the purpose of strengthening employer compliance measures and protecting temporary migrant workers from exploitation. To support greater compliance, the bill introduces criminal offences for employers who choose to coerce temporary migrant workers into working in breach of their visa conditions, and establishes a mechanism to prevent such employers from employing additional migrant workers for a period of time. It's an important consequence for particularly bad behaviour.
The bill also introduces amendments designed to remove some of the disincentives for temporary migrant workers to report exploitation. Currently they might fear that their visa status would be jeopardised by actually making such a report. It cannot be that, in modern Australia, migrant workers hardly get fair pay—as I said before, one in six are underpaid—because their employers think it's okay to treat temporary visa holders differently from Australian workers. It is not simply unfair and illegal; at the heart of it, it is un-neighbourly.
The Albanese government inherited an immigration and visa system in crisis. Too many tasks were placed in the too-hard basket. One of those was the exploitation of migrant workers. This led to an unchecked rise in exploitation. When the heat finally got too much, the previous government commissioned the Migrant Workers' Taskforce, back in 2016. After three years of listening to stakeholders, the taskforce made recommendations, some of which were cherrypicked and some were put into a bill that the previous government introduced, but it never seemed likely that that bill was going to make it to a vote. It should come as no surprise that on immigration reform, like so many other areas, those opposite dropped the ball.
The immigration legacy that the Albanese government inherited included a system that prioritised temporary visas over permanent visas, changed visa rules to restrict workers' rights, and removed pathways to residency. The enforcement of what little regulation migrant workers had protecting them was actively rolled back. Up until now, the benefits of exploiting migrants outweighed the consequences, and bad employers have made the most out of it—as I said before, a minority, still, but nonetheless having an incredible impact on our migrant neighbours. This legislation, importantly, changes this.
One of the critical parts of tackling exploitation is the need for a functional and well-administered visa system. We know that a system with long waiting times and poor client services creates additional vulnerabilities for the community and the government; another failure in the government's response to migrant worker exploitation. For people who have been exploited, the Migration Act has criminalised speaking out. Section 235 of the Migration Act makes it a criminal offence for a visa holder to work in breach of a work related visa condition or for an unlawful noncitizen to work at all. Although this criminal offence has not been prosecuted since it was introduced more than two decades ago, this government understands that workers are afraid to speak out. We intend to change that. A key element of this bill is to repeal this offence.
I would like to discuss some of the findings and highlight the work from the Migrant Workers' Taskforce. One finding was the underpayment of migrant workers. As has been discussed in the chamber today, underpayment is a long-standing problem with significant impacts for affected individuals, for the labour market and for the broader community. But it's difficult to precisely quantify the prevalence and severity of the problem. Just two months ago, Professor Allan Fels, chair of the taskforce, told the Australian:
This has been a severe problem for at least 10 years, there have been huge numbers of underpaid and exploited migrant workers and nothing was done about it.
Professor Fels has also made it clear that:
Wage exploitation of temporary migrants offends our national values of fairness. It harms not only the employees involved, but also the businesses which do the right thing. It has potential to undermine our national reputation as a place for international students to undertake their studies and may discourage working holiday makers from filling essential gaps in the agricultural workforce. This problem has persisted for too long and it needs concerted action to overcome it.
Professor Fels is right. This has gone on for too long, and it is disgraceful that migrant workers have had to wait until now for proper action.
The taskforce also identified that there are a number of vulnerabilities to workplace exploitation that are common among migrant workers, including limited English language skills, lack of awareness of Australian workplace laws, and, as I mentioned earlier, a fear of visa cancellation, detention and removal from Australia. Additionally, peer and community or family expectations, norms within cultural groups, as well as economic settings in visa workers' home countries can also influence their decisions regarding low-paid work. Research shows that, even where migrant workers are aware of legal minimum wages, some will still accept much lower pay rates. One research article the task force cited was from a 2015 study of international students in Sydney, which found that international students tolerate and accept lower than lawful wages not only because the wage rates can be high in comparison to their home countries but also because lower than lawful wages are normalised and accepted among their international student peers. This must end.
Exploitation of these workers was found to take many forms, such as wage underpayment or cashback arrangements; pressure to work beyond the restrictions of a visa; upfront payment or deposit for a job; failure to provide workplace entitlements such as paid leave, superannuation and many things that we take for granted; tax avoidance through the use of cash payments to workers; unpaid training; working conditions that are unsafe; unfair dismissal; misclassification of workers as independent contractors instead of employees—that sounds a bit familiar—and requiring migrant workers to use and pay for substandard onsite accommodation. This problem is not isolated to one or two sectors of employment in the economy; it's more diverse than that. It stretches from remote fruit picking to convenience stores in regional cities and the global ICT multinationals in our capital cities.
This is a complex issue, but to not respond to this soundly would be giving dodgy businesses the green light to maintain the status quo. It would be the same as surrendering this issue to the too-hard basket, which is not what Labor governments do. That's why there are six parts to the Albanese government's approach to addressing this systemic problem. Part 1 of this legislation enacts new criminal employer sanctions. New criminal and civil offences are being introduced concerning coercing people to work in breach of their visa conditions or using their visa status to exploit workers. The penalty will be up to two years in prison or 360 penalty units. This will be an important deterrent to employers who think about exploiting workers due to visa conditions. By adding such strong penalties we can disincentivise those employers actively doing the wrong thing.
Part 2 of the bill prohibits employers and individuals from hiring future workers on temporary visas. These new prohibition notices will enable the minister to declare employers and individuals to be prohibited from hiring new workers on temporary visas for a period of time. Employers and individuals will be subject to these discretionary prohibition notices when they are found to have breached migration and employment law. Triggers for prohibition will include court orders and noncompliance with employment and migration law. Where employers and individuals are subject to such notices, the minister must publish the relevant details on the department's website.
Part 3 aligns and increases the penalties for work related breaches. Penalties are increasing for work based breaches to align with the maximum penalties available under the Migration Act. This is intended to better reflect the seriousness of illegal work practices and the exploitation of temporary migrant workers. This will see penalties increase from 60 units to 240 units, which is designed to send an important message to businesses thinking about exploiting migrant workers. Part 4 of this bill will enable enforceable undertakings for work related breaches. This amendment will seek to give similar provisions under the Migration Act to the Australian Border Force. This will provide the ABF with additional tools in their enforcement approach. The ABF asked for more tools to enforce compliance, and this bill will do that.
Finally this legislation will empower migrant workers to speak out without fear of visa implications. Under the Migration Act the exploitation of a worker will be able to be considered as a potential mitigating factor when visa cancellation is under consideration. This will send an important message to migrants who are on temporary visas and who are worried to speak up that their visa will not be cancelled if they are being exploited. This will bolster the usage of the assurance protocol, a process that is used between the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Department of Home Affairs, designed to ensure that, when people report their employer to Fair Work, they are not penalised by the Department of Home Affairs.
This bill reflects the government's strong principle that approaches to employment and migration will work side by side to address exploitation. The Fair Work Act and the Migration Act will work together to protect workers regardless of their visa status. The Albanese government is working to address all aspects of this issue, and that includes ensuring that Australia has a functioning and efficient visa processing system. Those that suffered the most from migrant worker exploitation were the ones we relied on at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was visa holders who were stacking shelves, staffing hospitals, delivering essential care or delivering food to those stuck in home quarantine. In effect, they were being good neighbours.
I thank, for their coordinated efforts, Ministers O'Neil, Burke and Giles, who've worked together to ensure that this issue can be addressed properly—not with a bandaid but with legislation with a vision to end the exploitation of migrant workers so that we will be good neighbours to all our brothers and sisters across this country. I commend the bill to the House.
I rise to make my contribution to the Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023. The Albanese Labor government is a government for workers. From raising wages, to improving industrial relations, the government is delivering for workers. Every worker in Australia should expect to have their rights respected and to be free of exploitation. This government intends to pursue this goal without exception. The exploitation of workers' rights is a threat to all workers' rights. Exploitation brings down wages and worsens working conditions. Exploitation damages our national reputation and is a threat to national values. That's why this government is taking action to protect vulnerable migrant workers in this country.
This legislation is addressing recommendations made in a report by the Migrant Workers' Taskforce, a report that was made to the previous government in March 2019 and that the Albanese government is now taking action on. This report was initially commissioned in response to revelations published about the significant and widespread wage theft occurring across multiple industries by employers underpaying migrant workers. It's a national embarrassment, as a result of the decade of inattention by the previous government. According to the report, almost half of all temporary migrant workers may be underpaid in their employment. Migrant workers are especially vulnerable to exploitation due to issues such as language barriers, financial limitations and a lack of access to support and information about industrial relations. Unfortunately, some employers have tried to take advantage of these vulnerabilities. They misrepresent the worker's rights and ignore their own responsibilities.
I do understand that there will be discussions as to how many of these offences could be considered accidental and that perhaps some of them were the result of honest mistakes. However, I'll quote the taskforce chair from the report's overview:
Wage underpayment may be inadvertent, but the outcome is no different as to when it is deliberate.
Theft is theft, and ignorance is little consolation for the victims. This government will endeavour to make sure that the law is administered fairly and equitably and that every offence has a consequence.
Unfortunately, this abuse is not limited to wage theft. The Migrant Workers' Taskforce detailed the many different forms that this exploitation can take. These include, but are not limited to, pressuring workers to work beyond the restrictions of a visa, such as student visa work limits; failing to provide workplace entitlements, such as paid leave and superannuation; avoiding tax, through the use of cash payments; not paying workers for training; not maintaining safe working conditions; unfairly dismissing workers; misclassifying workers as independent contractors instead of employees; making unfair deductions from wages for accommodation, training, food or transport—and these are perhaps some of the worst ones—threatening to hold a person's visa so that it would be cancelled by authorities; withholding a visa holder's passport; or requiring migrant workers to use and pay for substandard onsite accommodation.
The rights to worker safety and to be treated fairly are things that Australian workers have fought hard to obtain and maintain as a basic standard for work in this country. We cannot and will not allow these basic rights and conditions to be circumvented, which is why the government introduced the bill to parliament. The bill is delivering on two key recommendations of the report from the Migrant Workers Taskforce. First:
It is recommended that the Government consider developing legislation so that a person who knowingly unduly influences, pressures or coerces a temporary migrant worker to breach a condition of their visa is guilty of an offence.
It is recommended that the Government explore mechanisms to exclude employers who have been convicted by a court of underpaying temporary migrant workers from employing new temporary visa holders for a specific period.
This bill implements these two recommendations. Through this bill, the Albanese Labor government will establish a new criminal offence and civil penalties to deter employers from using a visa condition or status to pressure and exploit their employees.
We will also be increasing the maximum criminal and civil penalties for all current and proposed work related offences and provisions in the Migration Act. These penalties will be almost tripled, with civil penalties of up to $99,000 for individuals and $490,000 for bodies corporate. The message this government is sending is clear: there will be no more profit from exploiting vulnerable workers. This is a sensible decision and in the best interests of everyone. The reputation of Australian employers is tarnished by those who ignore their responsibilities. This will help restore the confidence among multiple sectors of industry, and it will help those employers who are already doing the right thing and doing a good job.
This bill will also carefully extend the prohibition power to include breaches of the Fair Work Act and the Migration Act. It will ensure workplace relations law and migration law are working together to protect workers and penalise those employers who don't abide by the law. This will also include breaches of compliance notices and enforceable undertakings. A safe workplace is a better workplace—better for workers and better for Australia.
To ensure these laws are properly complied with, the government is strengthening the Australian Border Force. The Albanese government is creating additional tools for the ABF, such as a new compliance notice and enforceable undertaking powers. The government is providing the Australian Border Force with $50 million over the next four years, to provide them with extra resources needed to investigate and enforce compliance in all areas of our immigration system.
The legislation will penalise those who exploit the system but will protect those who are being exploited. Previously, under the Migration Act, it was a criminal offence to breach a work related visa condition. Unfortunately, this legislation only served to deter workers from speaking up, because they feared criminal sanctions. Employers could also use the threat of reporting workers to authorities in order to silence and therefore control them. This government is moving to ensure that the legislation cannot be used as a means of intimidation or a cudgel against innocent workers. The government has taken its duties and responsibilities seriously, while maintaining the insight to be able to distinguish the victims from the perpetrators.
This bill is just part of a range of measures that this government is taking to prevent and end the exploitation of those who come to Australia on temporary visas. In preparing this bill, this government has consulted widely with members of the public, unions, industries and researchers, but we are also currently engaging on complementing measures to help people speak up about exploitation in their workforce. This includes exploring the possibility of a whistleblower visa and the implementation of a firewall between the employment regulator and the Department of Home Affairs.
I would especially like to thank those unions who've stood up for migrant workers, such as the National Union of Workers. These offences and crimes affect all of us, and it is our responsibility to look out for one another and call out abuse when it happens.
This government has made supporting workers its cornerstone. We've been making improvements constantly and consistently, across a range of sectors, to create better conditions for everyone, and this legislation before the House today is another step in the right direction. We recognise that it is a government's duty to protect and empower those who are most vulnerable. I commend the bill to the House.
I thank those who have contributed to this debate. The exploitation of vulnerable workers is corrosive. Exploitation hurts all Australians: businesses who do the right thing; Australian workers, whose wages and conditions are undercut—it's a handbrake on wages growth—and of course those workers who themselves are mistreated and exploited. For these reasons we find the exploitation of migrant workers abhorrent to our sense of what is right and fair. This bill shows the Albanese government is serious about tackling exploitation. This bill includes measures to improve the visa system and enforcement regime to better address migrant worker exploitation. This bill will strengthen employer compliance and help to ensure law-abiding Australian employers are not undercut by unscrupulous competitors. This bill will implement recommendations 19 and 20 of the report of the Migrant Workers' Taskforce and includes several additional measures to address barriers that prevent exploited temporary migrant workers from speaking out and seeking support.
This bill includes three offences to address the misuse of migration rules to exploit migrant workers. If passed, it will be a criminal offence to use a worker's visa status, including unlawful status, or a future work related visa requirement to coerce or unduly pressure a person into accepting an exploitative worker arrangement. Together the new offences penalise unscrupulous employers for taking advantage of vulnerabilities associated with the migration rules. The prohibition measure will help to protect temporary migrant workers from employers who've engaged in serious, deliberate or repeated noncompliance with their obligations. This measure demonstrates the Albanese government is committed to protecting workers from employers who've broken the trust of our community. The increases in penalties reflect the significant damage the actions of unscrupulous employers can have on Australia's visa program integrity and public confidence in our migration system more broadly. They've been set at a level designed to deter people from offending.
Enforceable undertakings and compliance notices are important new tools to ensure the Australian Border Force can promote compliance without resorting to legal proceedings, where this is appropriate. The aim is to reinforce a graduated approach to compliance and enforcement, working with people who seek to genuinely do the right thing, while reserving the strongest penalties for deliberate, repeated and serious breaches. Section 235 of the Migration Act makes it a criminal offence to breach a visa condition. This has undermined the ability of workers to seek recourse to their rights under certain workplace laws. This decision to remove it is consistent with recent amendments to the Fair Work Act which confirmed the national workplace relations system should apply to workers in Australia regardless of their immigration status. This is critical for the protection of all workers in our community. The bill also introduces an avoidance-of-doubt clause to resolve potential unintended consequences associated with breaches of work related visa conditions that may inadvertently contribute to the abrogation of employer responsibility to provide workplace rights and entitlements.
The final substantive measure included in this bill is the introduction of a power to permit the migration regulations to prescribe matters to be taken into account in a decision whether or not to cancel a visa under section 116 of the Migration Act, as well as the weight given to those matters. We will continue to work with stakeholders to find a solution that will effectively protect vulnerable workers within the broader context, delivering a well-managed migration program in the national interest. These goals are mutually reinforcing, and I am committed to ensuring this can happen. I intend to consider all advice in consultation with my colleagues, and together we will ensure the regulations provide necessary protections to encourage workers to come forward and report exploitation, while maintaining the integrity of our visa programs.
This bill creates new powers, new penalties and a new approach to tackling the exploitation of workers who hold a temporary visa in Australia. Alongside the measures in this bill, the government increased funding for immigration compliance in the 2023-24 budget. For too long the consequences of doing the wrong thing and the chances of getting caught have been far too small. Thank you to all those who participated in the Senate committee report on this bill. Our parliamentary process is always stronger when informed by deep engagement with the community. The government will be putting forward amendments to this bill in the Senate, touching on a number of those matters raised. I also thank the opposition for their in-principle support for the bill and look forward to further engagement with them and other members and senators as we progress these amendments.
So many workers who hold a temporary visa make a significant commitment when they leave their home to come to Australia. It is unconscionable that some employers target these very workers as cheap and exploitable labour. It's critically important for the government to demonstrate its strong commitment to addressing worker exploitation, because this is the right thing to do and because it is squarely in our national interest. We cannot build our nation on the back of exploitation. This bill deserves support.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.