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Thursday, 27 November 2008
Page: 7508

Senator WORTLEY (12:57 PM) —The incorporated speech read as follows—

I rise to add my support to the Migration Legislation Amendment (Worker Protection) Bill 2008.

This bill seeks to restore the integrity of the Subclass 457 visa program and, in doing so, rebuild community confidence in this important scheme.

It will introduce various measures designed to better protect those who come to Australia under this temporary workers’ arrangement from exploitation.

The bill proposes to amend the Migration Act (1958) to make sponsor obligations clearer, introduce civil penalties for those who fail to fulfil their 457 visa responsibilities, improve monitoring of the scheme and facilitate broader information sharing between government agencies.

Unlike a Bill introduced but never debated and never put to a vote by the former Howard government, this proposal importantly encompasses all temporary worker visas - including occupational trainees - and covers visas issued under labour agreements.

The changes we are introducing in the bill before us today are designed to prevent employers simply shifting to other visa classes or labour agreements to avoid their obligations.

As well as being structured to reinstate and safeguard the rights of workers, this document is designed to make this system more flexible for employers.

A properly functioning Subclass 457 visa scheme is an important contributor to the health of the Australian economy.

It is an important cog in the government’s efforts to continue to put downward pressure on interest rates and inflation by increasing the supply of skilled labour in this country.

It is no secret nor should it be a surprise that we are suffering an acute skills shortage in this country.

Unfortunately, eleven-and-a-half years of neglect in this area by the previous Howard Government made sure of that.

Addressing this serious and urgent need is one of the Rudd Government’s major commitments.

Our first priority is to attack this problem by educating and equipping Australians, so that employers’ skills demands are matched by the skills set of our community into the future.

In this year’s Budget, the government made a $19.3 billion pledge to get Australians ready and prepared for work.

A $1.9 billion investment committed within this sum will deliver up to 630,000 new training places provided over five years.

However, a skills crisis born out of indifference and inattention, and exacerbated by a resources boom and low unemployment, cannot be remedied overnight.

Industry needs skilled workers now and we simply do not have enough Australians appropriately trained and prepared to take up those jobs.

We need 457 visas, the overseas workers who receive them and the employers who sponsor those workers—and it is in everyone’s interests that it is a robust and transparent scheme.

The system originally was designed to be taken up by a small number of highly skilled, professional, English-speaking temporary migrants.

But in the past five years, as the skills crisis has worsened, the scheme has been forced to grow rapidly in response to industry demand.

In 2003-4 there were just fewer than 40,000 457 visas issued.

In the most recent financial year, this total had ballooned to more than 110,000.

Professionals—such as registered nurses and GPs and business, information and computer specialists—still make up the bulk of 457 visa workers.

However, labour market demands have been shifting across the life of the scheme.

The program has begun to attract greater numbers of tradespeople, as well as more workers from non-English speaking nations such as India, China and the Philippines.

With greater communication difficulties and lower levels of education, this growing group of employees has been at much higher risk of exploitation by unscrupulous employers.

Sadly, under the watch of the former Howard Government, exploitation became a scourge on the scheme.

Initially denying any problems with the 457 visas, then defending her department by virtue of the fact it could not properly monitor the scheme, the former minister ultimately ordered a stop on the public release of information about the program in 2006.

However, through the media, the Australian public began to hear about employers who were undermining local wages and conditions by bringing in 457 visa workers.

By June last year, the then Minister for Immigration Kevin Andrews started to move on trying to plug the holes in the scheme.

However, stakeholders were not properly consulted in this process.

This failure meant many of the system’s shortcomings were not identified, let alone acted upon.

Of the changes that were made, some were too heavy-handed, resulting in an increase in red tape across the scheme—even for the majority of employers who had been doing the right thing.

Overall, it was a case of too little, too late.

The program needed a real overhaul, not just some minor tweaking.

The Rudd government recognises the need for Australia’s temporary overseas worker program to be in tune with global migration trends.

This is essential if we are to stay competitive in the world labour market.

And we need the confidence of stakeholders at home if we are to engage employers to take up the economic opportunities the scheme offers.

One important element in the attempt to gain the confidence of the major players is wages.

In August this year, the government indexed the minimum wage for 457 visa workers for the first time in two years.

This has meant an increase in the non-regional base salary level from $41,850 to $43,440 per annum and from $57,300 to $59,480 for ICT professionals.

The Government also appointed Barbara Deegan, an Industrial Relations Commissioner, to review the integrity of the current 457 visa program and recommend measures to better protect overseas workers.

And in the 2008/09 Budget, the Rudd government gave real and meaningful backing to its commitment to improve the temporary skilled migration program by allocating $19.6 million towards that end.

That funding for a range of 457 Visa integrity measures, includes this bill.

It also covers the establishment of a departmental working group which is charged with the task of creating a longer-term reform package.

Ultimately, the Subclass 457 visa system needs to be streamlined and transparent if we are to prove its integrity to the Australian people.

It must not undermine the pay and conditions of Australian workers if it is to be accepted as legitimate.

And it must not allow the exploitation of the overseas workers it seeks to attract to employment in Australia.

In order to achieve these necessary advances, we have begun analysing and addressing stakeholder apprehensions with the scheme.

And we have begun to act—as I have generally outlined today—in a decisive, timely, considered, collaborative and coordinated fashion.

This bill is a crucial plank in that plan of action … that commitment to improve the Subclass 457 Visa system for all involved, particularly the employees and employers on which the scheme relies.

We have also taken into consideration the effects of the scheme on the Australian people and the Australian economy.

I commend the bill to the Senate.