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Monday, 27 March 2006
Page: 3

Senator McEWEN (2:41 PM) —My question is to Senator Vanstone, Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. Is the minister aware that some unscrupulous Australian employers are rorting the Howard government’s skilled migration visas to bring in foreign workers at the expense of local workers? In particular, is the minister aware of two meat factories operating in South Australia, one in Murray Bridge, which has taken on a large number of unskilled migrant workers at the expense of locals, and another in Naracoorte, which has replaced Australian workers with unskilled Chinese workers? Isn’t it the case that, following complaints to the department of immigration, an investigation confirmed that workers are not engaged in skilled work and are being paid less than they should? Has the minister taken any action to stop the abuse of these visas by the companies in question? Why is the minister allowing this visa class to be exploited by unscrupulous employers to trade off Australian jobs and exploit foreign workers?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs) —I thank the senator for the question. The senator is simply repeating what I believe is a campaign of untruths and innuendo in relation to a 457 visa, otherwise known as a business long stay. This is a fabulous visa. It helps Australia in a time of economic boom, because we have got some skills shortages. Companies in Australia who want to be able to keep going at an appropriate pace when they strike a peak in their business or they get an opportunity to take a bigger contract need to be able to bring people in from offshore to help them cope with that work and therefore keep going to prosper and grow and, guess what: to therefore protect Australian jobs. A skills shortage puts industry at risk. Meeting that skills shortage protects industry and ipso facto protects Australian jobs.

Unions have been making a number of false claims. I hasten to add that, on any occasion where a claim is made that this visa is being misused, it will be investigated, the people will be dealt with and, in all probability, they will lose their right to further sponsor workers. Let me give you some examples of the type of wording that is being used: the senator said ‘foreign workers’ as if Australia in a global world with global trade can somehow only have Australian workers, not trade overseas, not allow our kids to go overseas and work, because that is the price you pay if you do not want people coming here to work. It follows on the claims made by Mr Burke, the immigration spokesperson for the opposition—

Senator Chris Evans —Mr President, I rise on a point of order on relevance. The minister was asked a specific question. I know she was not in the chamber when it started but I will ask you to refer her back to the question. It related to two specific issues in South Australia, her own state, and while she sought to make a very general contribution about skills shortages under the Howard government, I think you ought to bring her back to the question.

The PRESIDENT —The minister has over two minutes left for her answer, and I am sure the minister did hear the question and I would remind her of it.

Senator VANSTONE —Thank you, Mr President. The question goes squarely to the use of 457 visas, which is what I am commenting on. Following up the xenophobic claim of ‘foreign workers coming here’, we want Australians to be able to go and get jobs overseas, and we should be able to accept other people coming here. It works both ways. We heard their spokesperson talking about bringing in people from Beirut, Bombay and Beijing—and it was not a question of needing alliteration, because if you wanted to you could have said ‘workers coming from Blackpool, Brighton and Bristol’. But, no, the opposition have chosen consistently to refer to places in the Middle East, the subcontinent and Asia, referring to foreign workers and trying to cause some concern. Let us have a look at one of the claims. Let us just go directly to one of the claims. There was a claim published about Halliburton, a company operating in mining in South Australia.

Senator Chris Evans —Mr President, I rise on a point of order. The minister is making no attempt at all to answer the question. If she wants to have a tee-off against the opposition spokesman she ought to come in and debate bills. She never comes into the chamber and debates issues when they are on. But this is question time and she ought to be drawn back to the question.

The PRESIDENT —Order! In fact, I thought I just heard the minister say she was going to answer a point that was made regarding the question.

Senator Chris Evans —That is not what she said at all.

The PRESIDENT —I do not think there is a point of order.

Senator VANSTONE —Quite the opposite, Mr President.

Opposition senators interjecting—


Senator VANSTONE —That is exactly what you heard. What I indicated, if I can continue, is that I would go directly to one of the allegations raised.

The PRESIDENT —Yes, exactly.

Senator VANSTONE —Because I was asked if I was aware of the allegations raised that this visa was being misused. One of the allegations related to Halliburton, and the Australian Workers Union claimed that people were brought here from Indonesia to dig ditches and were paid $40 a day. The Advertiser, on the strength of what Labor told them, said ‘Slave labour for $40 a day: imported workers treated poorly’. The record was corrected by Halliburton on the same day. These workers were not digging ditches but were employed to supervise coiled gas tubing operations in oilfields, a very important industry to Australia.

Senator Kemp interjecting—

Senator Wong interjecting—

The PRESIDENT —Order, Senator Kemp! Senator Wong!

Senator Chris Evans —Mr President, I rise on a point of order. This is a complete abuse of question time—a complete abuse. The minister is making no attempt at all to answer the question. She is now answering an allegation apparently made in a newspaper. She was asked specifically about two South Australian cases. She has had about four minutes and has not come at all to those issues. I would ask you to protect the integrity of question time and ask her to answer the question.

The PRESIDENT —There have been a lot of interjections from both sides of the chamber. I would remind the minister of the question. I remind her she has 29 seconds left to complete her answer.

Senator VANSTONE —I was asked was I aware of allegations, Mr President. The salaries paid to these workers were not $40 a day; they were in excess of $60,000. The bonuses were $40 to $80 a day. These claims have been repeated, of course, on TV and radio, and only recently by Greg Combet, on the ABC yesterday—not just some paper but the leader of the ACTU repeating these claims he must know to be false. Any claims of misuse of this visa will be properly investigated.

Senator McEWEN —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Isn’t it the case that, following complaints to the department of immigration, an investigation of the South Australian situation confirmed that the workers are not engaged in skilled work and are being paid less than they should be paid? Doesn’t it show that the Howard government is unwilling and unable to properly police the use of this visa? Isn’t it the case that the department does not conduct any proper investigation to ensure companies applying for these visas have made reasonable attempts to employ Australian workers? Won’t this get worse as the Howard government’s extreme industrial relations changes permit employers to unfairly sack Australian workers without sanction, allowing them to replace Australians with foreign workers on low wages?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs) —You do not have to be as bright as a blown globe to figure out that if allegations are made they will be investigated. Of course, Senator, they will be investigated.

Opposition senators interjecting—


Senator VANSTONE —I do not have advice as to the outcome of the investigations to which I think the senator might be referring, but I do have advice in relation to Halliburton, which is one of the claims that was made by the union movement. And that proves—

Opposition senators interjecting—

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senators on my left will come to order!

Senator VANSTONE —That shows, Mr President, that when the time is taken for the investigation to take place, when the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations do an assessment and when an occupational health and safety assessment is done, they come up with a clean bill of health. Now, there will be cases where that will not happen. It does happen that you catch people out, in all fields of endeavour, doing the wrong thing. We did that last year: we caught people out and we have dealt with them and we will continue to do it. (Time expired)