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Tuesday, 27 February 2018
Page: 2114


Ms OWENS (Parramatta) (17:52): I want to speak on this bill for a number of reasons. Most people on this side of the House in the Labor opposition would be interested in a bill that calls itself the Migration and Other Legislation Amendment (Enhanced Integrity) Bill, because we've all heard the stories over the last few years of workers who have come from overseas to work in Australia and have been appallingly exploited—they have been paid less than the award, been required to work more hours and pretend that they worked fewer, been marched to automatic teller machines and made to repay part of their wages to their employer, been intimidated and been made to pay exorbitant visa fees or accommodation fees. We've heard appalling stories of workers being exploited in a country that we think is all about fairness and mateship. When the government put up this bill with the words 'enhanced integrity' relating to overseas workers I thought I want to talk about that, because we as a nation need to do better.

Unfortunately, this bill doesn't do anywhere near enough. In many ways it's so little and it's very late. Because of that it's hard to believe that the government is really serious about addressing what is an epidemic of worker exploitation in this country. We on the opposition side will support the bill because we do want to ensure that vulnerable overseas workers are appropriately protected from unscrupulous bosses.

This bill does a couple of things. It enables the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to collect tax file numbers, which will help to make compliance activities more streamlined, targeted and effective. That in itself is a good thing. It means the department will be able to check that bosses are paying their workers correctly and that visa holders are complying with the conditions of their visa, including that they are working in an appropriate position with the one employer. The bill will also ensure that the department can publicly name businesses who breach their sponsorship obligations. This will give prospective staff the opportunity to be informed about who they are signing up to work for.

We know from many of the stories that some of the most exploited workers in Australia are migrant workers. It is no secret that, within Australia, there are employers who are deliberately and systematically denying Australian and migrant workers rights, freedoms and a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. We are hearing examples of wage theft every single day. But I would question whether the ability to collect tax file numbers will address some of the manipulation that is taking place in the workforce where an employee may be paid the appropriate amount of money but is being required to pay their employer back in various ways and for various services.

With such a wealth of methods for exploiting foreign workers in this country at the moment, this bill won't go anywhere near far enough. In fact, I would suggest that, with the level of exploitation that is taking place in Australia, the real issues will not be addressed unless the government has a serious look at market testing to ensure that, when a business sponsors an overseas worker, they do so because there isn't one available in Australia. Again, we know the government resists the idea of market testing. But, without that, you can't be serious about stopping the exploitation of workers if you are still allowing businesses to choose to employ foreign workers because they can pay them less than Australia; they are not supposed to, of course, but we see examples of illegal action every single day. Without real market testing, you can't really take this government seriously.

I am also concerned that, with the collection of tax file numbers, the government might use this bill to target exploited workers a little more than they might target exploiting employers; it does, after all, track the worker. It is a facility that the government can use for workers or employers. I really hope the government are serious about that and use the provisions of this bill to tackle employers who behave badly rather than chasing people in appalling circumstances who are sometimes being forced to work more hours than their visas allow, and for lesser amounts of pay, under the threat of being deported. There are workers who have had their passports confiscated. I have had people in my electorate talk to me anonymously and refuse to give their name or their employer's name because they are so fearful of being deported. So we will wait and see whether the government is really serious about wage theft and uses the provisions of this bill to pursue the large number of sometimes large and high-profile businesses that have been exploiting workers.

Again, it is hard to take the government seriously when this bill doesn't cover seasonal workers. It covers temporary and permanent sponsored visas. That is very important, but it doesn't cover the thousands of backpackers and seasonal workers that come into the country. In recent months we have heard appalling stories of sexual exploitation and underpayment or non-payment of wages, sometimes for months, in this area. This bill doesn't touch that at all. It only deals with temporary and permanent sponsored visas. In some cases, it would be fair to say that what is happening among some of our seasonal workers and backpackers is slave labour. This bill does nothing on that.

I'm a great supporter of sponsored visas. I've spoken twice in the House this week on my concerns about the government's actions on market testing et cetera. There are very good reasons for sponsored visas. During the mining building boom, when the mines were expanding rapidly, we required an enormous number of construction workers. There is no way in the world a nation would train workers for a four- or five-year build; you just don't do that. So it was perfectly logical to bring in workers for that. And it is perfectly logical to bring in workers where a new field opens up and suddenly you need skills we don't have in Australia and it takes time to train them. I can see situations in my electorate—for example, with really quite high-quality restaurants in Gujarat or Telugu food. You don't learn that at TAFE in Australia. You might learn a whole range of things about being a chef but not those specific fields. I remember the government making much fun of the idea that we had goat herders on the skilled migration list. But, when you go out to regional areas and see how many feral goats there are and how many businesses there are growing in that field, you see that you sometimes don't have the skills required for something that emerges, and it takes a while to train them.

It is incredibly important, but we shouldn't be using overseas workers to come into Australia where an Australian can do the job, and we shouldn't be using them without training Australian workers to take over. If the government are really serious about ensuring that, as a country, we make the best and most effective use of overseas workers, I want to see the long-term planning and the building of skills in advance of need, I want to see the projections of skills shortages, I want to see genuine training plans in those areas, and I really don't see that. If they were really serious about ensuring that Australians get the jobs first, where those jobs were available, and that we only brought in overseas workers where Australians couldn't do the jobs and that those workers were not exploited, they would be doing much more than this, including market testing. But, mostly, I know they're not serious about this because it just took so long, and, after so long, this is it: the collection of tax file numbers for sponsored temporary and permanent workers—not for backpackers, not for seasonal workers, but just for that group. It is so little for an issue that is just so big.

We hear of major companies that have been behaving very badly and engaging in what can only be called wage theft. Time goes pretty fast when you're in this place, and we all remember when the 7-Eleven scandal broke. It was truly appalling. Fairfax and Four Corners combined, and their report came out in August 2015. It is now February, nearly March, 2018—2½ years later. That's how long it's taken for this government to act. The Senate inquiry into this, which began shortly after the 7-Eleven report, reported in March 2016. That was two years ago. The report was called A national disgrace: the exploitation of temporary work visa holders, and two years later this thin bill, which does so little, is the result. I would strongly suggest that if the government wants to be taken seriously on this they go back and look at the recommendations of that report. Just have a look at how much is needed to really clamp down on this.

There were articles in February 2016. I have an SBS article in front of me from February 2016 about the 7-Eleven workers, but there are many other articles from the same era talking extensively about worker exploitation. On 21 November 2017 there was another report. By Laurie Berg and Basinna Farbenblum and called Wage theft in Australia: findings of the National Temporary Migrant Work Survey, it drew on responses from 4,322 temporary migrants across 117 nationalities. The authors found almost a third of international students and backpackers earned $12 per hour or less, about half the minimum wage for the casual employee in many of the jobs in which temporary migrants worked. Those workers aren't covered by this bill. The report said:

Underpayment was widespread across numerous industries but was especially prevalent in food services, and especially severe in fruit and vegetable picking.

Again, these areas are not generally covered by this bill. Severe underpayment was experienced by every major nationality of backpackers and international students in this country, and at least one in five Americans, British, Indians, Brazilians and Chinese earned roughly half the minimum wage. At least three-quarters of underpaid international students knew they were being paid less than the minimum wage but stayed because they believed that everyone else on the visa was earning the same. This is an indictment of what is happening in this country. None of this activity is covered by this bill, because this bill covers permanent and temporary sponsored visas. These are not.

Just to give an idea of how late this government is, with all of its resources, with ministers, with staff, with the departments, with all the resources available to a government, it's taken it two years since the Senate report to do anything at all, and nearly 2½ years since the first 7-Eleven reports came out. Labor, on the other hand, put out its first plan to tackle worker exploitation in February 2016, two years ago. Three or four months after the 7-Eleven report, Labor's caucus committee that worked in this area had travelled the country, talked to workers and put together the first plan for serious cases of worker exploitation. We have grown it since then. But, even in February 2016, we knew that Myer subcontractors employing cleaners on sham contracts were being paid well below the award wage, denied penalty rates and superannuation, and were working without occupational health and safety protections. We knew about 7-Eleven stores, of course. We knew that Pizza Hut delivery drivers were being paid as little as $6 an hour in a rampant sham contracting arrangement. We knew there was widespread exploitation of workers in Baiada Group food processing factories, including workers being required to work dangerously long hours for less than the award wage.

We put together a plan right then to crack down on the underpayment of workers, ramp up protection for workers from sham contracting, give the Fair Work Ombudsman more power and introduce reforms to ensure that temporary workers were not being exploited and underpaid. It was two years ago, from opposition, with very little support staff and no public sector behind us. We managed to come up with a plan in three or four months, and we travelled the country preparing it. This government's had two years, with all of the resources of government. That's why I can't take this government seriously. It is far too little and far too late. Be serious about this. This is a blight on the Australian workforce and it's about time the government fixed it. (Time expired)