Senate debates

Monday, 21 June 2021


Workplace Relations

10:03 pm

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Despite the Morrison government's best efforts, the Fair Work Commission last week announced a 2.5 per cent increase to the minimum wage. It may well have been a higher figure if the Prime Minister had lifted a finger to advocate for wage rises. You would think, given Mr Morrison has overseen the lowest wage growth in Australian history, that he would be more interested in raising wages. But, on wages growth, Mr Morrison has been doing what he does best—that is, pretending he is not responsible. But we know the government has direct influence over wages in this country, and we saw a prime example of this last week when the Morrison government announced a new agriculture visa for workers from South-East Asia. According to Minister Littleproud, the new visa category will be less regulated than the Pacific seasonal workers program. There are a lot of ways to describe conditions for migrant workers in agriculture, but being too heavily regulated is certainly not one of them.

In fact, last week, Unions NSW released a report with the Migrant Workers Centre titled Working for $9 a day. Of the 1,300 horticulture worker surveyed, 89 per cent were on a temporary visa and 78 per cent were underpaid. Some were earning less than $1 an hour on piece rates while working up to 20 hours per day. We have a term for that sort of work: slavery.

I met one of these workers last week. She's a very brave Taiwanese woman, named Kate, who was getting paid $4 an hour to pick oranges. She said, 'I was dumpster diving for food and had to live in one room with seven other people.' At one farm, she said, she was sexually harassed and told she would have to put up with it if she wanted to keep her job. Well, Minister Littleproud, go to the media and complain that Australians don't want to do these jobs, but when these are the conditions, it is hardly surprising that willing labour is hard to come by.

The British government knows that the work standards on our farms are appalling. That's why, just last week, they negotiated for their citizens to be exempt from having to do their 88 days on a farm. That's great news for British backpackers. Instead we've got a new, unregulated, exploitative visa for workers from South-East Asia that's going to encourage rampant exploitation across the horticulture sector, especially in labour hire. It isn't just that these poor South-East Asian migrants like Kate are going to suffer through this dangerous scheme, workers from countries like Tonga and Vanuatu—our Pacific neighbours—who've had opportunities to come to Australia under the more regulated Pacific seasonal worker program, are going to be left behind. Why would a dodgy, horticulture labour-hire company choose to hire Pacific workers through a more regulated program?

Guess what—the same goes for Australians in regional communities. They are the very people that the National Party are supposed to be representing in this place. When the National Party can import migrant labour into regional communities for just $9 a day, why would these companies fork out the minimum wage to give an Australian worker a fair-paying job? Too often, those jobs and those farms are a result of what happens in supply chains with some of the biggest and most powerful retailers in this country. There is a need for proper regulation.

The Morrison government wonders why it can't shift wages growth up from record lows. I've got a very innovative suggestion for you. Stop exploiting vulnerable migrant workers and driving down wages and conditions for Australian workers.