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Monday, 17 March 2014
Page: 2095


Mr KELVIN THOMSON (Wills) (19:37): I am pleased to support the amendment moved by the opposition to the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Increased Employment Participation) Bill 2014. It is timely that we are having a discussion about employment participation. Last Thursday, unemployment figures showed that a further 10,000 Australians had lost their job last month and that there are now over 742,000 Australians out of work. The aggregate hours worked fell nearly one per cent, down 14 million hours. In my home state of Victoria, the participation rate fell from 64.8 per cent to 64.5 per cent, and our unemployment rate, at 6.4 per cent, is the worst since January 2002. In Broadmeadows, just north of my electorate, unemployment has risen by 25 per cent in the past six months, from 10.3 per cent to 12.8 per cent. Unemployment across Glenroy, Hadfield and Fawkner in my electorate is of particular concern. It now sits at 6.9 per cent, which is higher than the national unemployment rate of six per cent and higher than the Victorian unemployment rate. This higher than average unemployment rate will not be helped by the loss of Ford and other manufacturers associated with that company. Qantas job losses will also affect this community because of its traditional employment links with Tullamarine Airport.

Against this background, the decision by the federal government to allow employers to bring in unlimited numbers of foreign workers is a lunatic move, which will cost Australian jobs and bring back the rorts which took place before that loophole was closed. We already have over one million temporary entrants in Australia who have work rights. It is plain crazy to increase the 457 visa program. This program's application is already way too high. In 2009-10, there were 68,000 457 visas granted. Last year the figure had risen to over 126,000 temporary migrant worker visas. If you allow employers to bring in as many 457 workers as they like once a sponsorship is approved, this figure will continue to skyrocket. The workers concerned are prepared to work for less than Australian workers, which suits employers, but the 457 visa program is a dagger at the heart of Australian workers, who end up working for less than decent wages and conditions, or languishing indefinitely without any work at all.

We need to cap and reduce the temporary migrant worker programs and give job opportunities and job security to young Australians. The temporary and permanent migrant worker programs are a recipe for more young Australians to be out of work, with all the negative consequences that unemployment has in relation to mental health, drugs, crime and social harmony. I find it remarkable that almost 750 occupations have so few Australian workers available that they are eligible for the 457 visa program: caravan park managers, grape growers, cooks, IT workers—you name it; it is claimed we are short of workers in the field. It is just not so.

The ABC reporter Matt Peacock produced a very insightful piece of reporting on 6 March about the ripping off of thousands of abattoir workers in Australia on working holiday, or 417, visas. At the Scone meatworks in the New South Wales Upper Hunter Valley, serious concerns have emerged about excessive hours of work, gross underpayments of pay and entitlements, and mistreatment of employees, including sexual harassment. Grant Courtney from the Meat Workers Union Newcastle and Northern Branch says that some of the international workers—often Taiwanese backpackers—are not even being paid half the Australian minimum wage. Investigations also revealed backpackers being encouraged not to pay tax by using ABN numbers. It is unacceptable that this can go on.

A lot of the abuse of temporary workers occurs through labour hire companies. In the meatworkers example, the Scone site is owned by Primo Australia, who used the labour hire company Scottwell International. Scottwell, in turn, recruited Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese and Korean employees to work in abattoirs across Australia. Matt Peacock reported that it has 19 different abattoirs across three states employing more than 1,100 people. Grant Courtney, from the meat workers union, says that these subcontracting arrangements, and the use of labour agencies, should not happen. I agree with him. It is a recipe for the kinds of abuses that Matt Peacock's report identified. The workers who come to meatworks should be directly employed by the company. They should be paid Australian wages and conditions, and they should pay Australian taxes. If the work runs out, they can be let go, the same as other workers are let go.

Furthermore, the Victorian Liberal government has written to the Commonwealth seeking to have the population threshold for regional migration agreements lifted to allow—of all places—Geelong to be included. The workers at Ford, Alcoa and other industries in Geelong who now stand to lose their jobs are entitled to a fair crack at the jobs that will become available in future in that region, without having to face ferocious competition for entry-level, low-wage jobs from foreign workers who are willing to work for much less.

The bill before the House is called Social Security Legislation Amendment (Increased Employment Participation) Bill 2014. I am all in favour of increased employment participation, but we now have a workforce participation rate lower than it has been for years. In my home state of Victoria, participation is down from 64.8 per cent to 64.5 per cent, with an unemployment rate as bad as anything since January 2002. Unemployment in Broadmeadows has jumped 25 per cent in the six months of the Abbott government. So, why on earth does the government want to increase the temporary migrant worker program instead of giving the unemployed people of Broadmeadows a go? The December quarter figures showed that unemployment in the city of Moreland, which is in the heart of my electorate, has increased by over 25 per cent in just 12 months. Local unemployment climbed from 4.1 per cent in December 2012 to 5.6 per cent in December 2013. In Moreland, there are now 1,249 extra people unemployed compared with 12 months ago. A total of 4,675 local people are now out of work. This increase has been across the board: Brunswick, up from 3.6 per cent to 5 per cent; Coburg, up from 3.7 per cent to 5 per cent; and the north of Moreland, up from 5.1 per cent to 6.9 per cent. As I said earlier, this figure of 6.9 per cent—covering Glenroy, Hadfield and Fawkner—is of particular concern, being higher than the national unemployment rate and higher than the Victorian unemployment rate.

I am dismayed that the federal and state governments have twiddled their thumbs as Holden, Toyota, Alcoa and Qantas have announced the sacking of thousands of workers. This will have adverse effects on my electorate and on Victorians more broadly. This government's disdain for manufacturing in general, motor vehicle manufacturing in particular, makes it not only an anti-South Australian government—on the weekend, many South Australians made it clear that they have worked that out—but also an anti-Victorian government.

Youth unemployment is a big issue for Australia and for young Australians. According to a recent report by the Brotherhood of St Laurence, youth unemployment has reached a crisis point. The organisation says the figures show an average of 12.4 per cent of young people between the ages of 15 and 24 were out of work in the year to January. It says that figure has topped 20 per cent in some parts of the country, including Cairns in Far North Queensland, west and north-west Tasmania and northern Adelaide. In the Hume region, north of my electorate, the rate has hit 17.5 per cent. The executive director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence, Tony Nicholson, has—correctly in my view—described the result as a disaster. He said:

What it means for all these young people is that they're at risk of never being able to get a foothold in the world of work.

And in our modern economy that means that they're really being sentenced to a lifetime of poverty.

I think he is absolutely right. In many respects, we are failing the younger generation in terms of housing affordability and job security. We are letting them down. I am very concerned about the loss of jobs since the new government came to office. The government has failed to support jobs. I am concerned that they have few or no plans to deal with the increased level of unemployment. We have seen Qantas announce 5,000 job losses; 2,500 direct jobs at Toyota; 2,900 direct jobs at Holden; 1,100 jobs at Rio Tinto at the Gove refinery; 544 jobs at Electrolux in Orange; 110 jobs at Simplot; more than 200 jobs at Peabody; 200 jobs at Caterpillar; and many other indirect jobs. Sadly, we all know that these sorts of job losses have knock-on consequences and lead to even more job losses.

Australians deserve a government that will fight for jobs and support workers and job seekers. While measures to support young people in work are to be welcomed—and we do welcome them—we must focus on giving young people the skills and experience to get a job in the first place. Tony Nicholson has called on the federal government to invest in a national strategy to turn things around. He said:

Overwhelmingly we know that these young people need advice about their career paths, they need opportunities to gain basic skills, they need mentoring, but over and above all that, what they need is an opportunity to gain work experience in a real work place with a real employer.

In government, Labor focused on supporting young people to finish school and get the training and higher education they need for well-paying jobs. We believe in a strong public provider that underpins a high-quality VET system, which is why we support TAFE. Labor improved training and employment services for young people. Governments cannot expect young people to gain well-paid jobs without providing education, training and support. Governments cannot expect young people to easily find work with unemployment on the increase in the way that I have outlined to the House.

I think we should be looking to the Scandinavian models for guidance. There, an emphasis is placed on the long term and policies to mitigate the harsher effects of capitalism are in place. Denmark, for example, has a system of 'flexicurity', which makes it easier for employers to sack people but provides support and training for the unemployed.

An active labour market policy in Nordic countries helps improve qualifications among the unemployed through courses and education and also encourages the unemployed to actively focus on job seeking. The social security net is not passive in the sense that people may choose freely between working or not; rather, it provides a secure income as long as the demand for active participation in the labour market is met. Participation in the labour market is also supported by welfare schemes such as child care. An extensive childcare system has a direct welfare effect for families and helps to socialise children. It also helps to ensure gender equality in terms of opportunities to participate in the labour market.

Regrettably, this government obsessively believes in self-correcting free markets and that workers who have lost their jobs can move seamlessly into other work. At the same time, they disparage welfare and talk up the various myths of neo-liberal economic doctrine. However, the welfare state in Nordic countries is considered to be a strength when it comes to economic development. Not only does the welfare state benefit the whole population but also it has a positive effect on the economy.

The public sector and welfare services have helped these countries develop a highly skilled workforce and a high level of employment. Norway, for example, has 3.3 per cent unemployment, where we have six per cent unemployment. This, combined with a stable civil society, a strong democratic tradition and an effective regulatory framework has led to the emergence in the region of extensive social capital, which is one of the main pillars of the Nordic economies.

I support the opposition's amendment. I urge the government to get fair dinkum about boosting the labour force participation rate. To do this, it needs to cut back its migrant worker programs. The smaller economies of Northern Europe, which have not been trying to boost population growth with high migration programs, have most successfully had high labour force participation rates. I urge the government to support Australian jobs and Australian young people, who I fear are being done a real disservice by the policies that we are pursuing now. I commend the amendment to the House.