Senate debates

Tuesday, 25 February 2020


Workplace Relations

7:25 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Acting Deputy President Askew, last week a house in Shearwater in our home state of Tasmania was evacuated on the orders of the Latrobe Council. The five-bedroom house was being occupied by up to 77 seasonal workers. Their accommodation had been organised for them by a labour hire contractor. The workers were each paying up to $130 a week in rent to live in what could only be described as slum-like conditions. If you do the sums, it's possible that the company was receiving close to $10,000 a week in rent. I'm not sure if the landlord was receiving that much, but most landlords could only dream of fetching that amount of rent for a five-bedroom property, particularly in Northern Tasmania.

Sadly, stories of mistreatment and exploitation of foreign workers are far too common. The Australian Workers Union Tasmanian branch has been contacted by a number of workers who have come to Tasmania under the Seasonal Worker Program and reported being subjected to poor living conditions. Under the program, approved employers are expected to make arrangements for accommodation and transport for their workers, for which they can make deductions from their workers' pay. Many workers end up being ripped off by these arrangements—being charged hundreds of dollars a week to live in cramped, overcrowded accommodation.

Workers under the Seasonal Worker Program come from poor countries like Timor-Leste, Fiji and Tonga. They hope to earn money to send home to their families, but too often their hopes are shattered because they have been ripped off by an unscrupulous employer. One worker told the AWU that they were charged so much for accommodation and transport they were left with only $80 a week in their pay packet. While workers are technically allowed to make their own accommodation and domestic transport arrangements, this is almost impossible for workers with limited English going to an unfamiliar place and relying entirely on their employer for advice and support.

The Seasonal Worker Program guidelines state that employers must provide workers with 'reasonable accommodation', but they provide no definition of 'reasonable'. There is also no process under the program to check that workers' accommodation and the amount being charged are reasonable. I'm sure seasonal workers are not expecting five-star hotels, but I expect most Australians would not consider it reasonable to cram five or six people into a small room for up to six months and charge each of them more than $100 a week for the privilege.

The Seasonal Worker Program is not the only scheme in which seasonal workers have faced abuse or exploitation. There were plenty of reports of abuse uncovered through the Fair Work Ombudsman's Harvest Trail inquiry. This three-year investigation found that some foreign workers on Australian farms had been 'bonded like slaves'—and, yes, the words 'bonded like slaves' are a direct quote from that report—referring to the practice where employers would refuse to sign visa extensions for workers unless they saw out the season with them.

Some of the experiences reported to the inquiry include workers being driven to their accommodation via ATMs in order to pay in advance for bond, transport and accommodation costs; workers being bullied and sexually harassed; and labour hire contractors disappearing at the end of the harvest season with thousands of dollars in wages. The inquiry report was released in 2018, but evidence of worker exploitation goes back even further than that. Reports about workers being charged exorbitant amounts for substandard accommodation were featured on the ABC 7.30 program in February 2016—four years ago! These issues are not new and this third-term government needs to act urgently to make exploitation of seasonal workers a thing of the past.

The shadow minister for workplace relations, Brendan O'Connor, has written to the Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business, Senator Cash, seeking answers to several questions about the Seasonal Worker Program, such as: What inquiries is the department making into the Shearwater incident? How long will these inquiries take? Will the findings be made public? Is the government aware of any other instances of mistreatment under the Seasonal Worker Program? Will it be auditing employers who use the scheme?

I understand that we will also be pursuing questions about the program through Senate estimates.

Exploitation of any worker is unacceptable, but, because of their vulnerability, there is a particular need to protect low-skilled foreign workers from exploitation. Failure to address these issues will turn workers away from Australia and damage relations with our Pacific neighbours. As such, I hope we can get answers from the minister. I hope we can get them soon and restore confidence in the program.