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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 8221

Mr NEUMANN (9:20 PM) —My grievance relates to the Dinmore meatworks in the electorate of Blair, which is one of the largest meat processing plants in Australia. Some 18,000 beasts are killed weekly across 11 shifts for the beef export market. The plant is run by Swift Australia Pty Ltd, which advertises itself as the industry leader. Swift Australia is a subsidiary company of JB Swift and Co., which is made up of 40,000 people with plants and offices on five continents. Its origins were in Brazil. It advertises itself as the global leader in the meat processing industry. It says on its website that it is Australia’s largest and most successful meatpacker and exporter and that it is proud of what it does to provide the world with the safest and the most reliable beef products on the market today.

There are about 2,300 employees at Dinmore, including approximately 340 Chinese and 110 Brazilians and their dependents on 457 visas. Since November 2007, there have been repeated stand-downs. The workers there have lost more than three weeks of work. The stand-downs started last year and also occurred in February, June and July 2008. In August 2008, the workers there were forced to take annual leave. The plight of these workers has been the subject of much consternation and media attention, including through my local daily newspaper, the Queensland Times, which says that that union condemns foreign labour. It has also reached the Courier Mail as well. The Courier Mail reported that they take local jobs, and so they do.

Instead of cutting back the kill, which the company could do so that the workers could work full time, the company has stood down the workers. Working two, three or four days a week means that workers struggle to make ends meet. They struggle to pay their mortgages, feed their families and clothe their children. The company says that it cannot get enough cattle, but instead of keeping its workforce intact by cutting back on the kill, according to the workers whom I have met, its policy has caused a reduction in the number of Australian workers at the plant. These workers feel compelled to leave Dinmore meatworks because they cannot get enough income to meet their household needs and so look for full-time work elsewhere.

The workers tell me that the company, because it must pay its foreign workers a minimum salary level under the labour agreement for 457 visas whether they work or not, prefers to employ foreign workers on the shifts. Therefore the Brazilians and Chinese work on these shifts when Australian workers could do the jobs. The company says that it needs the 457 visa holders because it cannot find Australian workers in sufficient numbers in the local area—despite the fact that Ipswich is the fastest growing area in South-East Queensland.

The 457 visas are part of the Rudd government’s approach to meeting short-term shortages in skilled labour in industry. The 457 visa is not designed to replace Australian jobs. It is there to supplement, not displace. The labour agreement makes that very clear at paragraph 8.55; it makes that very plain. This is not to happen. Any suggestion that companies are doing this is a very great worry. It is simply wrong for the company to do this and it is unacceptable. It is unacceptable to the people in my electorate; it is unacceptable to the workforce at Dinmroe.

Last Saturday, I met with Russell Carr, who is the general secretary of the AMIEU, the union organiser Ian McLaughlin, commonly known as Macca, and a group of workers to discuss this issue. They are very aggrieved about what is going on. They have had some discussions with management, but they have proved fruitless. The management says that they will get back to them from time to time, but they have not been able to get commitments from management to correct this.

I had a meeting this morning with Chris Evans, the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, and made very strong representations on behalf of the workers. They are my constituents and some of them also live in the federal electorate of Oxley. It is time to send the company a message, and I am pleased the minister has done so. He assures me that officials from the department will meet tomorrow in South-East Queensland with representatives of the company. I would urge the company to change its practice, to heed the representations of its workers and to listen to the departmental officials tomorrow. The Commonwealth has wide-ranging powers of sanction, including suspension of the processing of visa applications—which I would describe as the nuclear option.

I am also happy to offer my electorate office at the Brassall Shopping Centre, which is a very busy shopping centre in my electorate in Ipswich, as a place where departmental officials can meet with workers who are too frightened to actually go public. If they wish to make complaints and discuss the issue with departmental officials, I am happy for them to meet in my office. I would invite the company to meet with me, though the parliamentary sitting has prevented me from arranging that. I have known the manager, John Berry, for many years. He is a good and decent man who is firm but fair. He is very community minded and it surprises me that John has been part of this. I think the pressure would have to have come from above. It is time to stop turning full-time Australian jobs into part-time jobs and outsourcing them to foreign workers. I am pleased that the minister has issued a press release today, and I will deal with that in a minute.

Paragraph 8.33 of the labour agreement makes it plain that the company must satisfy the agreement in terms of its efforts to reduce its reliance on temporary overseas workers and it must report on its efforts, its experience and the outcome to the department. The workers tell me they see little evidence of a reduction in the use of 457 visas. Under paragraph 8.41 of the labour agreement, the company must ensure the primary visa applicants are skilled meatworkers. They tell me that the workers are variable in terms of their language skills and their skills and talents in boning, slicing and other activities at the meatworks. This has an impact on occupational health and safety of course. So we have variable skilled workers and some Brazilians who have come over here, as I understand it, to learn about the meatworking industry. My advice from the workers is that these Brazilians do not want to work for the company back in Brazil because of its labour hire practices. They come to Australia, learn the skills and the trade, take Australian jobs and then go back to Brazil.

The minister has issued a warning today and he has issued a press release today. The minister has said that the Rudd government will not tolerate employers continuing to access foreign workers on temporary skilled migration 457 visas while denying local workers job opportunities. And he has issued a warning to the company. He makes it very plain that the subclass 457 visa scheme is a skilled migration program designed to assist employers who have skill shortages when local workers cannot be sourced.

Departmental officials tomorrow, I am instructed, will ensure the company gets the message loud and clear that they are not to deny local workers employment opportunities in the circumstances. It must abide by the conditions of the meat industry labour agreement. It is a condition for access to meat industry labour agreements that Australian workers are not displaced or replaced by overseas temporary workers. Labour agreement holders such as Swift Australia must have a proper plan put in place to reduce their reliance on 457 visas. If they do not, they breach the conditions of the labour hire agreement. I would like the minister, if they are doing this, to throw the book at them.

The Rudd government is committed to a strong, temporary skilled migration program, but we need to ensure that workers are not ripped off. We need to ensure integrity in the system. We need to ensure that people living in the Ipswich area who work in the meat industry are provided with full-time employment and training opportunities. We cannot have Australian workers’ jobs turned into part-time jobs and have that exacerbated by the recruitment of migrant workers. We need to train our skilled workers even better in boning, slicing and slaughtering.

It was a great privilege for me to get my first job in life in the meat industry at Dinmore meatworks. My father worked there, my uncle worked there and my three cousins worked there. I appreciate the fact that AMH, who was then the employer of choice, employed me in that regard, but I urge the company to do the right thing by the workers and their families and the people of Ipswich. I really hope that we see an improvement in the labour practices and I have faith that the minister will heed my representations.

Debate adjourned.