Senate debates

Thursday, 2 September 2021


Temporary Migration Select Committee; Report

4:12 pm

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

[by video link] I commend the work of the Select Committee on Temporary Migration, particularly that of its chair, Senator Raff Ciccone, for his dedicated and tireless efforts throughout the course of this inquiry, as well as those of my colleague Senator Jess Walsh. As Senator Ciccone noted yesterday, the COVID-19 pandemic and its closure of international borders exposed the deep dependency of our economy on temporary migration. We had the second-largest temporary migration workforce in the OECD before the pandemic, and alongside that came rampant exploitation and wage theft. This was made worse or even enabled by the precarious nature of the workers' existence. The vulnerability has been an outcome of this temporary status. The report exposed a system that is broken and failing to deliver what it must. It is a system in desperate need of reform.

The committee heard about all kinds of ways temporary migrant workers are being exploited—everything from underpayments to unfair deductions, threats to have a person's visa cancelled, unsafe conditions, unpaid training and the withholding of visa-holders' passports. It heard many other examples, even of extreme practices such as human trafficking, slavery and slavery-like practices such as forced labour and debt bondage. The inquiry heard devastating evidence such as that of a man, a qualified welder with years of experience in his home country, who no matter how hard he worked was made by his employer to do more, leaving little time for lunch or even bathroom breaks. He had to sacrifice family time, and because of his onerous work hours he had little opportunity for English language study even though his permanent resident application required an acceptable level of English. It was only when he overheard native-born co-workers wondering how their boss could pay him and other migrant workers with their excessive overtime penalty rates that he realised he was being ripped off.

There needs to be a comprehensive review of the Australia's visa system, and that is what this report envisages. An investigation by the Sydney Morning Herald and theAge into migrant worker abuses in the Australian meat industry, published in recent days, has uncovered shocking evidence of the scale of the problems that exist. The headline alone in today's devastating article tells you everything you need to know about how broken the system is. It reads, 'Chinese meatworkers bear the scars of mistreatment in Australia's visa factories'. It tells the story of a Chinese meatworker named Wang who had a tank of near boiling water spill on him while he was working on a cow carcass at Teys Australia's Biloela abattoir in Queensland. He turned up for work as usual the next day despite needing medical attention, because he did not want to endanger his permanent residency chances. It was a bad gamble. Months later and still in pain, he was out of a job anyway and his hope of a better life in Australia was in ruins. He told the journalist:

Such things happen to me but would not happen to local people. Why? Because we want to stay in Australia. We want to have the long-time visa.

Wang went on to say:

If you are Australian local people, you don't have to worry about this. You have equal position with the factory like anyone else. We are poor people. We have no power when we talk with factory.

The newspaper investigation also covered a Chinese meatworker at a Victorian abattoir who was not taken to hospital after being concussed at work and an Argentinian at the same meatworks being forced to turn up for work before being vaccinated for Q fever, contrary to the Victorian health department recommendations. A Taiwanese abattoir workers was ordered to return to work while he was bleeding from the mouth from an injury so severe he would later need surgery. The man was not paid sick leave. The article tells of migrant abattoir workers from Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland having borrowed money or sold possessions to pay recruitment syndicates $70,000 or more to secure a job after being promised it would lead to permanent residency.

The role temporary migration plays is incredibly important, and the visa is a particularly important responsibility for this government to oversee. The role of temporary migration in filling areas where Aussies cannot quickly enough meet demand remains incredibly important during this time of unprecedented economic challenge.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.