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Monday, 23 November 2015
Page: 8704

Senator KIM CARR (Victoria) (21:28): I rise to speak on the Migration Amendment (Charging for a Migration Outcome) Bill 2015. Labor supports this bill, which implements the recommendations of the independent review of the 457 visa program, chaired by John Azarias. Labor is broadly supportive of the review. We did not agree with all of its recommendations, but it has made important proposals for reforming the 457 visa system. Most notably, the review recommended the establishment of a tripartite ministerial council with government, employer and union representatives. The council would advise on the skills gaps in the Australian Labor market and in effect become the custodian of the 457 visa system. Although the present bill concerns only one specific recommendation of the Azarias review, Labor believes its scope should be expanded to include more of the recommendations, and we therefore intend to propose to amend the bill accordingly.

When foreign citizens reside in Australia, they hold visas that grant them the right to work, and a fundamental principle should apply. That is that anyone working in this country should do so under Australian conditions of employment. That principle should not only apply to holders of the 457 visas, but also to international students and to visitors on working holiday visas as well. Visas that give foreign citizens the right to work must not be used as a pretext for importing cheap labour, nor should the reasons for which these visas were instituted be undermined. For example, international students are granted the right to work so that they can support themselves while studying. It is the study that should take priority, not the work. The provision of international education services has become one of Australia's major export industries. It is worth $17 billion a year to the economy, so it is vital that the integrity of this industry should not be threatened by unscrupulous employers who underpay their workers and try to intimidate them into silence because they are on a student visa. We simply cannot have a situation where people are able to generate businesses which become visa factories. Of course, the point of that whole education scheme is in fact education, not an employment program.

We can look also at the working holiday visas, which bring tourists to Australia who contribute to the economy and often develop an affinity with the country during the time they are here. These visas build relationships between nations. Many young Australians are the beneficiaries of similar visas in other countries, especially in the United Kingdom. It is a longstanding arrangement that usually works well. However, that is all the more reason to prevent the flouting of visa conditions by employers who do pray on the vulnerable. Similarly, 457 visas are intended to be issued when there is a skills gap in the labour market. Their purpose is to allow enterprises to continue so that more Australian jobs will ultimately be generated. But, clearly, the visa gaps must be real and not contrived.

Senators will be aware that foreign citizens are not always employed under the conditions laid down in their visas. For example, recent investigations by Fairfax and the ABC uncovered the systematic underpayment of staff in the 7-Eleven convenience store chain, which had some 620 outlets across the country. These media reports found that thousands of international students whose visas gave them the right to work were in fact being exploited. A Four Corners program also found that many of the people with 417 visas who are employed in the fruit picking and packing industry had been routinely abused in their workplaces. These workers were frequently assaulted or were subjected to sexual harassment. In some cases women were asked to perform sexual services in exchange for a visa. These revelations in these reports are of course matters of profound concern, and that is why Labor moved to establish a Senate inquiry into temporary work in Australia. I know that in the meat industry there have been reports of abuse of these visas schemes for many years. It is particularly prevalent in regard to the backpacker visas.

You will note that no sooner is there an attempt made to draw attention to this than the unscrupulous, particularly labour hire companies, will move onto another visa class. We saw, for instance, some material put to air on 7.30last year which indicated there were 19 different abattoirs across three states employing more than 1,100 people and misusing various visa classes. They were particularly employing people from China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea who work in abattoirs at much reduced rates, under a complete abuse of the visa schemes that they had actually been attracted to. These companies were not paying Australian wages and conditions, and there is very great concern about whether or not they were paying appropriate taxation as well.

So for all of these reasons it is important that the measures in this bill now before the Senate be examined and supported. The Migration Amendment (Charging for a Migration Outcome) Bill 2015, now before the chamber, prohibits one practice that potentially undermines the 457 visas. The Azarias review recommended:

That it be made unlawful for a sponsor to be paid by visa applicants for a migration outcome, and that this be reinforced by a robust penalty and conviction framework.

This activity occurs when an inducement is sought or received or offered or provided in return for a migration outcome, and at present the Commonwealth has no specific legal power to act against this sort of corrupt practice.

With regard to the 457 visas, the sponsor will typically be an employer, and it is an employer sponsored visa program, so it is quite clearly inappropriate for the employer of a worker on a 457 visa to seek or accept a payment or other inducement in return for providing a job, which is why Labor supports this bill.

But there are other measures that Labor believes should also be included. We therefore intend to propose various amendments, as I have indicated, at the committee stage. These amendments would provide for a more vigilant enforcement of visa conditions and allow for better coordination of the immigration and industrial relations systems.

Firstly, this bill's provisions should not only apply to workers on 457 visas; they should be extended to international students and to people on working holiday visas as well. I make it clear that the penalties for sponsors who breach visa conditions should be strengthened. The specific penalties we propose will be set out in the amendments. Our amendments will also increase protection for visa applicants. In some circumstances employees could be subject to penalties for offering inducements of the type that I have referred to. The bill's penalty regime should not apply, however, to employees who have been coerced into offering payments, whether by employers or by third parties. Nor should it apply to visa applicants who have been victims of human trafficking, forced labour or slavery offences under the Criminal Code. It might be extraordinary for some people's minds that these things occur in this country. Clearly these are exceptions that need to be spelt out.

Further, to enhance the integrity of the visa system people employed under student or working holiday visas should not have Australian business numbers. In other words, if they are working under visa conditions, they should do so as part of a contract of employment. Labor also believes there should be legal protection for whistleblowers who reveal abuses of the visa system and the exploitation of those employed under it. I have already made reference to the 7-Eleven stores. An amnesty for whistleblowers was in fact given in that instance, and there should be a general legal protection provided as well. Workers who can provide evidence of abuse or corruption might be reluctant to do so if they fear that they will lose their visas or, of course, be deported. Further, in the interest of protecting exploited workers, unions should be able to initiate prosecution of companies breaching visa conditions.

Finally, the minister should be required to table an annual report on the operation of the measures implemented by this legislation. The bill in the form that we have it is a necessary first step in preventing the exploitation of vulnerable workers, but it will be a much better bill if the measures that Labor is proposing by way of amendments are adopted, and I urge the Senate to undertake such a course of action.