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Tuesday, 13 June 2006
Page: 42

Senator STERLE (3:12 PM) —I rise to take note of answers given by the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to questions about the Howard government’s use of foreign guest workers to lower Australian rates of pay and conditions. The ‘minister for deporting Australians’ has the gall to call the Labor Party xenophobic. Strewth overboard! Talk about hide: the government have made an art form out of playing the race card. But that is not the only card game this government play. Since the Howard government took control of the Senate they have legislated a three-card trick to create a second-class set of foreign guest workers in Australia. They have done this for one reason alone—that is, as the economists say, to put downward pressure on wage growth. What that really means is taking the money out of workers’ pay packets and putting it into the bosses’ pockets.

The first card was to remove the no disadvantage test so that bosses are legally able to offer work under AWAs at much lower wages and conditions than the going rate. The second card was to change the welfare laws so that if a person wanted to refuse being exploited by a scungy boss offering an insultingly low-level of wages and conditions then they would be refused the dole—‘Take the crap job or starve,’ they say. The third card was to open the floodgates to a wave of foreign guest workers on temporary visas with conditions which effectively remove any bargaining power they might otherwise have had. The cumulative effect of this three-card trick is that, even in this time of low unemployment, the Howard government has created the conditions necessary to drive wages and conditions down. There have been low-paid guest workers in Australia for years; that is not new. In the maritime industry, the Howard government has exploited a loophole in our maritime laws to allow foreign flagged ships with cheap and exploited foreign labour to move freight around our coasts for years. And now that the Howard government has taken control of the Senate it has been able to bring this practice onshore. I take the point made in Senator Lightfoot’s comments about a certain employer in the state of Western Australia—in my and Senator Webber’s home state. A certain builder, Hansen, is well known and quoted in the West Australian newspaper for bragging about bringing in 170 Filipino labourers that he could proudly use to undermine 30 years of union collective bargaining and improving wages and conditions within the construction industry.

I want to touch on another point that Mr Hansen was confronted with two weeks ago while he was beating his chest in every form of the Western Australian media about how he wanted to bring in more and more guest workers. He said that he was paying them the minimum wage: ‘What is the big deal? There’s no drama.’ But the CFMEU in my home state actually went and confronted one of Hansen’s building jobs and put a protest on his front gate. And do you know what? Not only were there CFMEU officials on the site, highlighting the danger to Australian jobs and Australian wages and conditions of guest workers’ being exploited, but workers—employees of Mr Hansen’s company—actually walked off the job and joined the protest. What does that say? I will tell you what it says: they know darn well what is happening. Australians are not stupid; they are not silly. They can see that these guest workers are coming in. Yes, we have a skills shortage created by 10 years of a Howard government. Let us make no mistake about that; you have been in office 10 years. It is no good blaming anyone else. You have given people like Hansen the loophole to exploit foreign workers.

What has happened—and this is a fact that was reported in the West Australian, that great media outlet in Western Australia that would not tell any fibs—is this: the West Australian said quite clearly that not only were these people on lower wages and conditions but they also resided in a house that was supplied to them by a family member of an employee of the company. They each paid $100 a week, and there were eight of them living in that house. That is $800 a week going straight to paying off an investment for someone else.

I ask you, and I ask everyone with a conscience, to think about this: when the boom subsides—and let us hope it does not for a long time—what are we going to do? The foreign workers will be exported back to their countries and Australian children will not be trained. Australian children will not be given the opportunity. (Time expired)