Tuesday, 11 May 2021
Joint Standing Committee on Migration; Report
Anyone who has read this report would be amazed to find that there are so many weaknesses in what this government is proposing. It is not about the skilled migration program; it's about how to unskill Australians and it's about how to exploit those workers brought in from overseas. There are several deeply disappointing aspects to this document. The recommendations the government members have made are quite simply outrageous. They say they are streamlining—or, more accurately, trashing—labour market testing. They want to make it easier for employers to bypass the current requirement to look for local workers. More employers will go straight to temporary visa workers instead. And the government also wants to reserve quarantine spots and flights for temporary migrants. How many more ways can you whack the Australian community?
This government have no idea what they're doing—on second thoughts, they do: they want to suppress wages. They've very successfully done that. Over the past eight years under this government wages have never been lower, and now we see stagnant wages. This is the first government that has actually caused a decline in the middle class in this country. Being a care worker was a middle-class job. Being a cleaner was a middle-class job. Being a transport worker was a middle-class job. This government has turned around and ripped the heart out of those jobs that brought the middle class into this country.
For the family members of 40,000 Australian citizens who are still stuck overseas and desperate to come home, the government's decision to reserve quarantine flights for temporary migrants is absolutely heartbreaking. In the past 12 months our immigration system has come to a total pause. This year, the first year since 1946, more people left Australia than entered it. This government has delivered the worst vaccine rollout. There has been an abject failure to invest in quarantine facilities. It's no wonder we're looking at limited immigration for months to come, because the government has spent eight, going into nine, long years underspending on education and training. Our nation's workforce is facing a disastrous shortage of skills. At this government's feet, young Australians, older Australians, all Australians are second class in their own country.
We all know that immigration is incredibly important for this country. Immigrants provide our country with drive and imagination, and a rich multicultural society. In the past, migrant labourers on projects like the Snowy Hydro scheme were given a path to permanent residency and citizenship. The government used to support apprenticeships and TAFEs. Employers would provide on-the-job training. All that has changed. Now what the government is proposing is not to put any money into training. It's cheaper to bring in people from overseas to come and do this work, not to skill Australians and give opportunity to future generations—let alone the reskilling of Australia that we need with the challenges with the future of work. TAFE funding is going down, not up. According to the Independent Education Union, TAFE funding is now lower than it was a decade ago. Seventy per cent of courses have had funding cuts. Instead, our skill gaps are filled with endless temporary workers with few or little rights. Very few of these people ultimately have the opportunity to become permanent residents.
If the coronavirus pandemic has shown us anything, it has shown us the utter failure of the system this government has put into place. According to the OECD, Australia is now home to the second largest temporary migrant population in the developed world, right behind the United States of America. We're No. 2. In the hospitality industry, around one in five chefs, one in four cooks and one in five waiters hold temporary visas. We aren't training people for the future. We aren't training hardworking Australians for an opportunity to be in our important industries. Of course, our fourth largest export is international education. But it should be a national embarrassment that we can educate the world while facing skill shortages in our own backyard.
This budget's current reliance on temporary visa workers is bad for everybody. It's bad for those visa holders who are dependent on an employer to keep their job, who can get exploited by unscrupulous operators preying on their vulnerability. A study this year by Unions NSW showed that over 80 per cent of Sydney's international students were illegally and shamefully underpaid. This is an unacceptable level of exploitation right here in Australia. It puts unfair pressure on other employers who try to do the right thing, and it locks out Australians who want to be employed in a fairly paid job.
Many visa holders come to this country because they want to become Australians. Our system provides far too few opportunities to become permanent Australians or citizens. But, most of all, this strategy, this policy and this government is bad for wages. It's bad for a wages-based enterprise bargaining system. How, as a visa holder, do you enter into bargaining negotiations with your employer? How do two million temporary worker visa holders in this country turn around and bargain under the enterprise bargaining system? The government's answer to that was: 'It will make it easier. We'll give them even less rights.' They can't exercise even the rights they've got now without retribution and potentially being deported at the employers' whim. And, of course, we've seen this in the aged-care sector, where the government has been suggesting, consistently now for a number of months, that aged-care workers should be workers that are on temporary visas. They have the hide to sit here and tell us what they're doing for the Australian community in the skill areas and in aged care, yet they're not making those jobs the middle-class jobs they should be—jobs that have middle-class responsibilities but not middle-class wages. This government is directly responsible for that strategy because of the policies they put in place in regard to temporary visas and because they have a clear responsibility about making sure that decent wages are delivered in an area they substantially fund. There are no procurement requirements, no responsibility, no training, and the answer is, 'Let's bring somebody in we can exploit.' It's that simple.
Currently these workers are exploited ruthlessly by bad operators. They undercut those employers who are trying to do the right thing, as I said. It's an outrageous situation. What the government is saying now is not that they will decide who comes into this country but that employers will decide who comes into this country—employers that exploit, rip off and won't employ Australians. And, not only will they do that and allow them to do it, they are actually making it cheaper for them to do it. That's a government working against this community and Australia's future in work and skills.
There's a role for temporary visas of course, and there's a genuine visa shortage in certain skills. The skills are rare and hard to find, and that needs to be considered. But there have been a number of important reports, which this government has also put in place. John Azarias wrote a recent report, the National Agricultural Workforce Strategy in March this year, and previous reports by the same author and various panels under this government called for the opportunity to employ and engage more Australians and to have an appropriate system that actually has balances and checks. I'm one of those silly people; I remember when all the chefs were trained here as apprentices. But, when it's cheaper to do it overseas, I don't blame the employers for doing that, because you've made the opportunity for them to do it. But I do blame those employers that exploit, and you allow them to do it and you encourage it by your policy. There are those decent employers who stand up for hardworking Australians by giving them jobs and opportunities and fair wages.
In April, the Guardian reported a story about a German woman named Nina, who took it for granted that she would work for three months for as little as $35 for a full day's work just to fulfil her visa requirements. She knew that she was being ripped off, but she had no choice but to carry on. Of course it's not just in the hospitality industry; the same thing is happening in the meat industry in the abattoirs, where a lot of the jobs that were good, well-paid, local jobs for hardworking Australians are now being given to short-term temporary visa holders who, again, have no say and no real rights because they are temporary and they can be easily disposed of by the employer—that's why they're employed. It's quite clear that we are stuck with this policy of this government, which doesn't have any real vision—only a plan for how to demolish skilled Australia.
I seek leave to continue my remarks later.
I also want to speak briefly on the same report. Senator Sheldon has quite eloquently articulated some very good points around the reliance and overreliance, I think, on temporary migration in this country. In light of the last 12 or 18 months, this country does need to have a good, hard look at itself about where it is heading in terms of temporary migration. I'm a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration. The interim report that's been tabled here today in the Senate is on Australia's skilled migration—or our lack of skills and, as Senator Sheldon also mentioned, deskilling Australians. Ultimately this is what this is about.
Recommendations were put forward by government senators and government members of the committee in what can only be described as a very hasty, short, rushed process. Three days for an inquiry—three days that we had to jam-pack with witnesses. It was quite obvious, having been to some of those hearings—I couldn't go to all the hearings over those three days, because it was all set up and rushed very quickly—even the department secretaries and representatives that appeared before the inquiry weren't in a position to answer questions they were asked by Labor senators and members on the day. They had to take quite a few answers on notice because they weren't prepared. It just shows that this government already had, in my opinion, predetermined outcomes that they wanted to see as part of this report in time for budget week. I guess we will have to wait and see what comes out of the budget later tonight.
I've been a member of that committee since I was initially appointed and then elected into this place. There's always been goodwill and bipartisanship on that committee. Unfortunately, that bipartisan nature has been thrown out the door. Certainly we've cooperated with the government on a lot of matters, but that last report really did put a bad taste in our mouths. Given how important migration is to this country—migrants have built this nation. My parents came here back in the late 1960s. There would be a lot of stories in this place about migrants and the great success story of what makes Australia such a great nation: our multicultural and diverse community. We should be very proud of our migration history. Sadly the government has chosen to play politics with this. I would just hope that once the final report is tabled in this place later in the year we can actually say some more complimentary things, but this was a hasty and rushed process just to satisfy the government's budget response later tonight.
Labor senators and members were left with no choice but to write a dissenting report. It was probably one of the strongest dissenting reports I've seen in my time in this place, and rightly so. There was no doubt. We should make no mistake about this: the recommendations in this report constitute an attack on working people, whether they're Australians or migrants, but particularly locals in Australia. Should the recommendations be adopted by the government, they will deliver poorer outcomes for Australia and Australian workers. As I've said, Australia is a migration nation, and proudly so.
Labor does oppose some of the recommendations, and I want to go through some of these now. The recommendations in the report would see us undermining labour market testing, which will make it harder for Australians to find a job. Right now unemployment is still high, though there is a lot of work out there. A lot of witnesses that appeared, including the Business Council of Australia, openly said that they would rather have migrants come into Australia than look for locals to fill those jobs. There are just so many roles right now.
We also oppose the effective scrapping of the Skilling Australians Fund, which would make it harder for young Australians to get the skills that they need. This touches on the point that Senator Sheldon made: we're effectively deskilling not just current Australians but future Australians as well.
We are also opposed to the immediate expansion of the skills shortage list, which will put the jobs of Australian hospitality workers, tradespeople, people working in manufacturing and seafarers at risk. Why? Why would we want to do that right now? Given the geopolitical environment that we're in and given the experience that we've all experienced in the last 12, 18 months with COVID, why on earth would we want to start to de-skill and put the jobs of many people at risk in manufacturing, seafaring, transport, retail, hospitality, tourism, all these industries?
An honourable senator: Hairdressing.
Hairdressing. We even have cooks on the list. Apparently we don't have enough cooks. Why aren't we training people? We have TAFEs; we have universities—excellent institutions. Let's put the money into those bodies, into those organisations that are skilling people up. Now is the time to do so. At a time when Australians are doing their best to get back on their feet or simply to get by, this is the 'support' that this government has promised to offer them. These recommendations are not appropriate and, if anything, are counterproductive, it is clear from the way in which this inquiry has been conducted—the pace and the lack of appropriate consideration of evidence provided.
I know those opposite might take issue with this but, if we are to have an inquiry and it is to hear all sides of the story, let's not just have witnesses on the employer side. There was not one trade union movement representative. There was not one body that represented the workers or the migrants or the settler services that offer support to migrants in this nation—not one. Yet we had the department and we had plenty of employer associations. There's nothing wrong with that, but let's have a fair and balanced approach, fair and balanced evidence, before any inquiry in this place. It was so one-sided and that made it laughable, quite frankly. It is clear, sadly, how this inquiry was conducted. In some ways I guess it represented a wish list from those opposite on migration reform.
I want to make it abundantly clear that Labor does not support the recommendations in the report and that is why we submitted a dissenting report. We oppose each and every one of these recommendations and we will continue to oppose them. I really do hope that the government and members of the committee take note of what I and others have said about this report, not just here in the Senate but also in the House of Representatives, because we do want to work with government to make sure that we have a strong migration system, one that does have benefits for our economy, that does benefit Australian workers, but we can't do so when the government starts ripping the guts out of our industrial relations system, starts ripping the guts out of the pay and conditions of Australian workers.
We are in very dangerous times at the moment, very interesting times where we don't know where we could end up in the next 12, 18 months with COVID yet we need to provide that confidence to Australian workers right now, not the other way around. Again, we oppose the recommendations and we will continue to do so, I'm sad to say. We are trying to offer the government an opportunity to work with us. Come and work with us, and I guess we will see where that goes over the coming months once we do submit a final report.