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Select Committee on Job Security
Impact of insecure or precarious employment on the economy, wages, social cohesion and workplace rights and conditions

HEINECKE, Ms Danielle, First Assistant Secretary, Labour and Connectivity Division, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

McDONALD, Mr Ewen, Head of the Office of the Pacific, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

MURRAY, Mr Gavin, Team Leader, Pacific Labour Facility, Palladium International

SALA, Mr George, Australian Engagement Manager—Community Networks (Acting), Pacific Labour Facility, Palladium International

CHAIR: Welcome. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear today?

Mr Sala : If I may, in my first language I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land before I speak. E ao ona ou muamua, ona fa'atulou i latou e ana fanua ma eleele fa'aleaganu'u o lo'o tatou fono ai i lenei taeao. I latou ta'ita'i ua fai i lagi folauga, i latou ta'ita'i o lo'o soifua mai pea, aemaise o suli a le lumana'i a le 'Ngunawal Country People' o Canberra, Australia. It is appropriate that I must firstly acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet this morning. I acknowledge their elders who have passed on, their elders who are with us today and the future leaders and generations of the Ngunawal country people, Canberra, Australia.

CHAIR: Thank you. I note neither DFAT nor Palladium have made submissions to the committee. Before the committee starts taking evidence from the Commonwealth officers appearing today, I remind committee members that the Senate has resolved that an officer of a department of the Commonwealth or of a state shall not be asked to give opinions on matters of policy and shall be given reasonable opportunity to refer questions asked of the officer to superior officers or to a minister. This resolution prohibits only questions asking for opinions on matters of policy and does not preclude questions asking for explanations of policies or factual questions about when and how policies were adopted. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses in giving evidence to parliamentary committees has been provided to you as part of your invitation to appear. I now invite you to make an opening statement, if you would like. At the conclusion of your remarks I will invite members of the committee to ask questions.

Mr Sala : My role as the acting Australian engagement manager for PLF includes overseeing the community engagement activities for the program and the cultural competency aspects of the program as well as overseeing the activities and the capacity building work for our country liaison officers.

CHAIR: Thank you. I will go to Senator Small.

Senator SMALL: Good afternoon, folks. I will ask my questions by addressing them generally and then I will invite whoever is appropriate to respond. I want to start first of all with the program, the Pacific Labour Scheme, in a general sense. Can you please provide at a high level the department's perspective on the matter of deductions, what constitutes a reasonable deduction and what protections are in place to protect workers from exploitation? I'm keen to understand that very important aspect in some detail.

Mr McDonald : In relation to the Pacific Labour Scheme, for which the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been responsible since 2018, there are guidelines in place around those deductions that we sign off on as a department. Those deductions are worked out between the employee and the employer and signed off by the department. We've just taken over the Seasonal Worker Program. The completion of that machinery-of-government change was in January of this year. So, responsibilities around that were for the Department of Employment, Skills and Education, and they had guidelines in place around those deductions as well.

Senator SMALL: When you say that the deductions are signed off by the department, do you mean that the principles of deduction are signed off? Or do you mean that the individual claims or dealings between employers and employees are signed off?

Mr McDonald : I'll ask Ms Heinecke to add to this, but, in terms of the example Senator Sheldon spoke about earlier, that sign-off would have occurred within the Department of Education, Skills and Employment, at the time, after discussions between the employer and the employee. But Ms Heinecke might want to add to that.

Ms Heinecke : There are a couple of levels. This is signed off at the deed level—the deed that sits between formerly DESE, now DFAT, and the employer, under the Seasonal Worker Program. There is a set of guidelines that require, for example, those deductions for predeparture costs to be paid back in the first 12-week period. There are also requirements in the deed around ensuring that welfare and cost of living are able to be provided through that gap in payroll. Importantly, information is provided by the department with the labour-sending units, predeparture and on arrival.

We've got all those documents translated as simple fact sheets into all the languages, and I'm happy to table those today—they've been translated by the Pacific Labour Facility—to benefit each sending country, so they can explain those deductions, both pre-arrival and on arrival, and things like accommodation to the workers. Then there is a contract that sits between the employer and the worker. That was discussed in earlier evidence today. Those contracts are explained to the worker beforehand so that they understand and sign off on the particular deductions. Things like accommodation, for example, are fairly high in Australia. It's explained that that will be the cost that comes out of their salary.

Senator SMALL: When you say 'beforehand', do you mean before they depart their country of origin?

Ms Heinecke : That's correct.

Senator SMALL: I think it would be very useful if you could table those documents you referred to; that's quite important. Does the department audit or undertake some sort of compliance activity with employers that are participating in the scheme?

Mr McDonald : Yes, we do, and Ms Heinecke will also outline that for you.

Ms Heinecke : I'll talk first about the Seasonal Worker Program, because that's the evidence that I think you are after today. DESE, formerly, and now DFAT—from 20 January—undertakes assurance and compliance activities. They're risk based. To give you a sense, this financial year there have been 83 physical monitoring visits for SWP. That has involved interviews with over 1,143 workers. It's an audit approach. For this financial year, it's constituted 34 per cent of all SWP employers. Of course, that's not the only avenue that is used to look at compliance with the deed. There are also whistleblowers and there are other ways through our country liaison officers. They are either diplomats from foreign countries that provide a consular service, or they're employed in Australia by those high commissions to undertake those roles. They also provide information to us as well at times, as high commissions do regular trips around Australia to talk to their employers. As a result, we do take action. As an example, from the 83 this year, we identified 18 minor actions. There was actually an action last week, where we identified major action. It is an important part of the deterrent, but we also monitor any upfront issues that have come to us through those visits.

Senator SMALL: That's very useful information at a program level, but this might be a good time to start talking through the specifics of this particular case. In terms of the department's engagement with Ms Levitt, with reference to the particular allegations that have been made to this committee, has DFAT requested information or otherwise sought supporting or substantiating information from Ms Levitt with respect to this particular case?

Mr McDonald : Yes, we have.

Senator SMALL: That's extraordinary. Could you please outline when and how you sought to obtain that information and what response you have received.

Mr McDonald : I think Ms Heinecke is best placed to answer that. She specifically made those requests.

Ms Heinecke : I first contacted Levitt Robinson—at the time I wasn't sure which member, so it was through their general information email—on 13 December, following the media allegations. The reason for that contact was to seek evidence so that we could investigate. At the time it was being managed by DESE, but, as we were in the process of a machinery of government change, I did it in the capacity of inheriting the Seasonal Worker Program. Since then we have followed up verbally here at the hearing on 2 February, on 7 February, on 15 February, and again on 8 March to seek that information so that we could commence investigations. Without pay slips, without evidence, without workers, without employers we cannot investigate.

It's really important to note that, in relation to the four workers who provided evidence on the 2nd, we immediately commenced proceedings under the deed and have referred any of the pay slip conditions and piece rate application issues to the Fair Work Ombudsman, which has the appropriate expertise to investigate. That is the normal process under the SWP.

Senator SMALL: So, despite those repeated attempts to obtain the information necessary for action under the deed from a departmental perspective, and a referral to the appropriate regulator, would it be fair to summarise that by saying you have received less than satisfactory compliance with those requests?

Mr McDonald : I think it's fair to say that we have not received the information we requested in order to investigate them fully. Ms Heinecke made the point that as soon as we received that information, which the Senate elicited for us in a number of cases, we immediately actioned them. As soon as we get that information we will action it immediately, and we don't have it at the moment in relation to a couple of cases.

Senator SMALL: That puts the conduct of those who stand to financially benefit from a class action in respect of potentially exploited people, and the less than wholesome answers given to my colleague Senator Canavan earlier today, in a particularly disgraceful light. I want to turn now to the engagement that has or has not occurred with the high commissioner in respect of this particular case. From a departmental perspective, what are you aware has taken place between the department and the high commissioner for Samoa?

Mr McDonald : We can certainly comment in relation to that since we've had responsibility for the program. We have regular conversations with the high commissioners, as Ms Heinecke mentioned. We would like to hear about any issues that arise immediately they arise so we're having regular conversations.

In relation to the matters that were raised here, Ms Heinecke has had discussions with the high commissioner. Ms Heinecke might want to add to that.

Ms Heinecke : As Mr McDonald has said, we have regular contact and, in relation to this case, I've had regular dialogue with the Samoan high commissioner. Our Australian High Commissioner to Samoa, based in Apia, has also discussed issues, broadly, around labour mobility as a regular dialogue point as well as the issues that have come out of this case with the relevant authorities in Samoa. We work with the Samoan liaison officer to resolve issues.

The way that we try and do that in the Pacific Labour Scheme and through the Pacific Labour Facility, which has a different mandate and history to the SWP, is we work very closely to try and resolve issues before they become major issues. Importantly, we also make sure that there's support to high commissions and liaison officers to visit their workers here in Australia, and we regularly participate with them where there are particular critical incidents in location.

For example, earlier this month, when there were some challenges with Vanuatu, in relation to cases, we travelled up with them to northern Queensland to meet with the high commissioner and workers, to make sure that we could take on any welfare issues and work with the high commissions and liaison officers from relevant countries to proactively look at issues. The PLF plays an important role in that, given their strong Pacific island employee base, within that facility, who speak language and are able to take a cultural approach to resolving issues proactively.

Senator GROGAN: It's important to note, as you're appearing in the context of this privileges hearing, that, ultimately, DFAT and Palladium both have some responsibility for the Seasonal Worker Program workers, through the Pacific Labour Facility, including those we've heard from today who've been disadvantaged by giving evidence in the Senate. I have some baseline questions first. What's been the total sum of money that Palladium has received from the federal government, thus far, to implement the program, Mr Sala?

Mr McDonald : As Ms Heinecke mentioned earlier, there are two different arrangements between the Seasonal Worker Program and the Pacific Labour Scheme. Palladium are engaged as part of the Pacific Labour Scheme in a tender back in 2018. That tender had a value of up to $70 million on it, in the provision of the Pacific labour facility that applied to the Pacific Labour Scheme. In relation to the Seasonal Worker Program, DESE had responsibility for that program and they had different arrangements in place. Now the programs are coming together, we're looking at how we best establish the future of the program as we go forward.

There are some areas that we've asked the Pacific Labour Facility to help—for example, the 24-hour helpline we have in place for all our Pacific Labour Scheme workers. We've also made it available to seasonal workers, because we want to hear any concerns they have, and have helped during COVID. We've had particular instances, for example, where some employees, due to their personal circumstances, could not get back into their own country because of COVID and they've needed some additional support and movement. We've also used them for that purpose.

Senator GROGAN: So the totality of that is up to $70 million.

Mr McDonald : Yes. The contract was let in 2018, and it always has a value; there is an expected value of that contract. It was let after an open-tender process and approved within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for the Pacific Labour Scheme.

Senator GROGAN: The contract that sets out Palladium's responsibility as the contractor implementing the PLF is DFAT agreement No. 74040—is that correct?

Mr McDonald : I don't have it off the top of my head, but you're probably right. It is definitely a DFAT contract, yes.

Senator GROGAN: I'm just ensuring that for any additions or amendments that we're clear which contract we're talking about. There is just the one contract: no additions or amendments?

Mr McDonald : I think it was established in 2018. It may have had one variation, I think—Ms Heinecke, is that right?

Ms Heinecke : There have been a number of variations since first signed. Originally, it was actually a $50 million contract, because it was only working with three countries. However, when the government announced the step-up and we expanded it to 10 countries, we immediately increased the resources, primarily so the Pacific Labour Facility could support the other seven countries. The original three countries were small countries as we had a predecessor program that just worked with Tuvalu, Nauru and Kiribati. We then expanded it to 10 when the Pacific Step-Up was announced in late 2018. Sometimes amendments are also required when you do internal reallocations within that $70 million, and we have done that on occasions when we've needed to to execute duties as the need for evolution in that contract has been required.

Senator GROGAN: Mr Sala, could I ask you a few questions. Can you summarise what your responsibilities are in the seasonal worker program, especially those relating to worker welfare?

Mr Sala : The seasonal worker program is not officially a responsibility under the PLS as the PLS program under the Pacific Labour Facility is what we manage. However, as alluded to earlier, there are examples as to where PLF has been called on to assist in that particular program. At the current time, the SWP helpline is 02 62405234. The Pacific Labor Facility manages the overflow of that line which comes through after the hours that the SWP manage the calls as well as the weekend. So, we do manage the helpline.

In addition to that, as mentioned, the Pacific Labour Facility has provided extensive supplementary support during the times of COVID where we assisted 221 supplementary SWP workers who, as a result of COVID, could not return home. In particular, I draw your attention to our pregnant workers: there were 42 SWP pregnant workers who we supported during that time as obviously borders were closed and they could not return and were within the 12-month waiting period. Extensive assistance from the PLF was provided, including reaching out to hospitals, negotiating with health insurance providers and ensuring that their visas were compliant with visa condition 8501, which is having adequate health insurance in place. We supported specifically in that period.

In addition to that were capacity-building activities in country where we have in-country support. With our labour-sending units, there's a shared responsibility to support those functions.

Senator GROGAN: Do you have a breakdown of what proportion of the government funding you receive goes to SWP and what goes to PLF?

Mr Sala : I do not have that on me within my capacity.

Ms Heinecke : Senator, I can perhaps clarify. Our contract is very clear in the sense that it does ask the PLF, as Mr Sala has said, to support each of the 10 Pacific countries in capacity-building to support the role that they play. This includes things like predeparture briefings and recruitment of workers, which are done by the government rather than the private sector in almost all Pacific countries because that market doesn't necessarily exist. So they do play that really important in country role.

As Mr Sala has said, during COVID we did re-engineer some of the responsibilities of PLF to provide extra support where DESE or DFAT needed them to take on that role. The way the contract is organised is not along the lines of SWP because, as we've said in earlier evidence, the deed is managed by DESE. PLF does not have a role in any of the assurance, compliance relationship with the employers in the Seasonal Worker Program. In Australia PLF only comes in when asked to by DESE. That was very much the case during COVID during that period. They did need extra help. DESE wasn't able to provide those particular services during the time, so we did amend our contract to change some of the functions within PLF to suit that COVID environment.

Senator GROGAN: I may have an old copy of that contract, but if I can just draw you to what I have down as paragraph 4.1(d) on page 49, which says:

The Contractor will identify and develop partnerships to support national dialogue on managing the risks of worker exploitation, and enhancing compliance as well as support services to workers. The Contractor—

Which is Palladium—

will also communicate lessons from research and information from monitoring of the PLS and SWP.

And the contract has various references to the SWP.

Ms Heinecke : Senator, you're correct. There's very clear direction in the contract around where PLF plays a key role. And, as you can see, around all aspects of what happens in the Pacific Labour Scheme PLF has a key function and a lead. In relation to SWP, yes, that varies in relation to research and analysis in the broad, which includes things like evaluation studies which go to remittances; how much money is being sent home; reintegration work with each country sending unit, which also is developing policies regularly around the right balance of workers overseas versus those in their own country. They do provide that support, but the primary role in that contract described to SWP is DESE and that's very much set out in that contract. Under the various annexes to that contract it's very clear that DESE has that key function.

Senator GROGAN: Thank you. Back to you, Chair.

CHAIR: Mr McDonald, do you want to add something?

Mr McDonald : Yes. Just for Senator Grogan that contract number is correct: 74040. Thank you, Senator.

Senator GROGAN: Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you. Senator Canavan.

Senator CANAVAN: Thank you, Chair. I missed some of the evidence earlier, so I apologise if I repeat myself. I just want to clarify: after our 2 February hearing, did the department, or any agency regulator, take action to seek to inquire about the allegations made on that date?

Mr McDonald : Yes, we certainly did. We took immediate action in relation to the evidence that was provided at the hearing. As we mentioned earlier, we were also seeking, I suppose, the opportunity to interview some of the people who provided evidence to work through the evidence that was provided. A couple of those took that option up. We have since referred matters on to the Fair Work Ombudsman in the case of four individuals. We've also been in constant contact with the employer, including an audit—I forget the exact term. Is audit the right term, Ms Heinecke?

Ms Heinecke : An unannounced visit was undertaken on 24 February to the accommodation, given some of the allegations that were raised at the hearing on the 2nd. By unannounced we mean we only give them two hours notice that we're coming, so that can be investigated at face value.

Mr McDonald : Just adding to that: the outcome in relation to accommodation was that there were some minor issues that needed to be resolved that have since been resolved. For example, access to fans was one of the issues raised here. They were available but not notified to the employee, which we've corrected so that they have access to that. We've investigated them fully. We referred the pay matters to the Fair Work Ombudsman, and we're waiting for the outcome of that investigation.

Senator CANAVAN: Have both MADEC and Sunny Ridge been cooperative with your inquiries?

Mr McDonald : Yes, they have. Ms Heinecke might want to add some detail on that.

Ms Heinecke : We requested the information the guidelines require. Once we request that information, they're required to provide all of the information we request within five days. That was complied with.

Senator CANAVAN: In terms of ongoing investigations, it sounds like there's simply a referral here to the Fair Work Ombudsman. Are there any further investigations you're doing into these matters?

Ms Heinecke : We initially, for example, would look at all the payslips, time sheets et cetera that were part of that notice to report request, as well as some of the other issues that were raised in the hearing around accommodation, kitchen access et cetera. Particularly when it relates to piece rates and the application of piece rates, it does require the expertise of the Fair Work Ombudsman to have a look at that. We had an initial look, and then as a result we did ask MADEC for more information to be provided. That has been provided. All of that information, as well as any subsequent information that has been provided to us through MADEC directly or through some of the information that's been exchanged through this committee, has been provided to the Fair Work Ombudsman.

Mr McDonald : I'm not sure whether you heard Ms Heinecke talk earlier about a couple of cases that we've been asking for additional information on since November, when they were raised in the press. The reason for that is that as soon as we get that information we will take immediate action. We've done that in relation to four cases—thanking the committee here for that information—and if we get the information on the other two we will take immediate action on those as well.

Senator CANAVAN: You might have heard earlier that there's a contention here about whether or not one of the workers, Talipope, worked on four days in or around mid-November. Have you looked at that at all? Can you shed any light on where the evidence lies here, on whether he did in fact work on those days?

Ms Heinecke : Probably similar to the committee, we've recently heard about some of the disputes around that. We have referred that information to the Fair Work Ombudsman as well as part of their investigation. I also put on the record that we've been in contact with the workers since then—certainly those that have been open to an interview. We first met with the workers on 9 February, including talking to MADEC about where they might move as part of that discussion. That has involved the Samoan high commission. At the request of workers we did have a mediation on 3 March, which has included Mrs Sauiluma-Duggan, who presented today. There is a move going on at the moment. Five of the six workers have taken up an option to move to a site in Queensland. That's been negotiated by us. I want to put on the record as well that we were first advised on 3 February—I think that was an earlier question. That was the date MADEC advised us that the workers were seeking a move.

Senator CANAVAN: How did MADEC make that request? Was that in writing?

Ms Heinecke : I think it was in a phone call, but I'll have to check that. We have a record that it happened on 3 February.

Senator CANAVAN: Did they simply say the workers had requested this, or did they go into details about when that request was made or how it was made?

Ms Heinecke : Obviously, following the hearing we've had a number of conversations with MADEC around options. It's my understanding that MADEC has been paying the workers since then, while a negotiation has been going on around originally six, now five, workers that are seeking a move. There was an original request for those workers to move as a group, but that had to be negotiated with employers, and, obviously, they also need to have the work but also have available accommodation that meets the standards, so there has been quite a lot of back and forth between MADEC, DFAT and the workers to try and negotiate a suitable site for those workers, noting the preference of many of them to move together. It's really important that they move to approved employers. I don't know, including in the earlier evidence that was given today, about whether the farm outside Canberra or the Camden farm were approved employers. As we have said before, it is important that we move people to approved employers, and that's what is happening in the case of these workers moving to Queensland, with their agreement and their consent—a very important part.

Senator CANAVAN: I'm specifically just seeking if there was any indication provided by MADEC that this request to relocate was as a result of their evidence to the Senate on 2 February, keeping in mind that, in particular—and this is my recollection—the workers did say that; at the Senate hearing they said they wanted to be relocated. Was that the reason?

Ms Heinecke : Yes, it was in response to the hearing. We weren't advised beforehand that the workers were seeking a move. I think really it's been first notified as part of the hearing.

Senator CANAVAN: You might not have seen, and I can't remember if it was MADEC or Sunny Ridge, but someone wrote to us saying that the request had been made on 31 January—that is, a request from the workers to a Mr Rob Hay. You weren't made aware at all of this particular request that was made on 3 February.

Ms Heinecke : No.

Mr McDonald : I can clarify that information was given to us in a phone call, and we were advised.

Senator CANAVAN: That might have been from MADEC to us, but that is on our records, I believe, about that conversation that was allegedly held on 31 January. Are you aware of a class action that is proceeding with regard to Pacific Islander workers?

Mr McDonald : I'm aware of some comments that have been made on that, but Ms Heinecke might have more detail.

Ms Heinecke : Yes. We're aware of a proposed class action. It was primarily made aware to us through the media and in an interview with the ABC in November, but there were references to it in a press release made by Levitt Robinson in around August last year with regard to the Geoff and Jane Smith incident that was discussed by this committee previously.

Senator CANAVAN: When you see those sorts of reports, do you seek to contact the law firms directly and ask for any evidence of wrongdoing?

Ms Heinecke : Yes.

Mr McDonald : Just on that, at the time, that program was not sitting with us in Foreign Affairs and Trade; it was in the Seasonal Workers Program, which was DESE at the time. When we became aware of not so much the class action but the issue that was raised on the seasonal workers program, we were going to take it over—a mission of government change—and we took action, which was when Ms Heinecke contacted the lawyers to seek information.

Senator CANAVAN: Have you contacted Ms Dana Levitt, who has provided evidence to us? She is somewhat involved in this class action process—or wherever it's at, at the moment.

Ms Heinecke : At the time, we directed it to Mr Levitt through their—

Senator CANAVAN: This was before the hearing, was it?

Ms Heinecke : This was on 13 December.

Senator CANAVAN: Have you contacted Ms Levitt since the hearing?

Ms Heinecke : Yes. We've had five occasions when we've requested that information now.

Senator CANAVAN: Have you had a response from Ms Dana Levitt?

Ms Heinec ke : Only in the margins—we had a discussion following the hearing on the 2nd, probably in this room, and at that time Ms Levitt did say she would provide the evidence so we could investigate it. I've followed that up three times since and haven't been able to get the information. That was by email but also though an attempt to contact the firm, and I was told to email it.

Senator CANAVAN: I would never speak ill of lawyers, but some of these law firms would have an incentive to not seek a regulatory conclusion or fix for the problems that have emerged here, because they can make money if they keep these issues going through the court system. Is that a concern at all, with the types of litigation funders that seem to be involved in this space? I'll be upfront: I'm concerned.

Mr McDonald : My comment on that would be that we ask all people who are aware of possible issues of concern in relation to the program to raise those with us immediately. We have appropriate procedures in place, as I think we've shown since these issues were raised in this committee, that we will action those immediately. I think DFAT has a good history of that in relation to the Pacific Labour Scheme, and we will continue that in the future. So, for anyone who has information, the sooner we can get it the sooner we can refer it to the appropriate places for investigation. Of course, our concern is also about the individual involved and whether those claims are right. The sooner we can investigate and look after their welfare or, in fact, come to a conclusion that the concerns are not real—in either case, the sooner we can do that the better.

Ms Heinecke : I would just add that we did reach out, immediately after hearing through the media about this proposed class action, to all the high commissioners and to all our relevant counterparts in each of the 10 countries just to encourage them, as we always do, to bring forward any allegations, including any that they were concerned about, particularly that might relate to this proposed class action. We did ask them to bring them to us, and we really made sure that they were aware of this. As I said before, information regularly comes from country liaison offices and high commissions that conduct activities or are approached by workers in Australia, in line with their consular functions. We did try and get that information. We also sought to get it from our files, but it's very difficult without names, pay slips and employers.

Senator CANAVAN: Thank you. I have a final question. I believe there are a number of reforms occurring right now to potentially better protect workers and support redeployments. I think you might have mentioned a little bit of this at the last hearing. Could you outline where those reforms are up to and what's happening there?

Mr McDonald : The reforms are scheduled for April, I think, as per the statements that have been made. They're on target, as far as I'm aware, and Ms Heinecke can outline what they are. They're things like a four-year visa and the ability to move more easily between employers. Ms Heinecke may wish to add some others things.

Ms Heinecke : I will add a few. One of the reforms that will come in on 4 April is being able to move between the seasonal stream and the long-term stream. That's particularly linked to skills upgrade, which is really important for Pacific countries. We're in the process of negotiating with all stakeholders—Pacific governments, employers and any other community groups. We've also got the PALM Advisory Group, which will be the name of the new program that merges the seasonal and long-stream together. That includes a whole range of stakeholders, including unions and employers, across all the sectors we work in. We don't just work in agriculture in the Pacific Labour Scheme. We are able to work in all sectors, including the care sector, hospitality and tourism, where there are workforce shortages, to guide those reforms. Once those new deeds are negotiated, they will come into effect at the time when everybody agrees to those reforms.

In merging the two programs together, we're also looking at best practice in both schemes and making sure that they inform future insurance, compliance and welfare opportunities, and we're working closely—and this is really important—with each of the high commissions and countries around the cultural approach. It is really important that workers have the right kinds of mechanisms to put complaints in and that they feel comfortable working through a range of avenues to report any complaints or simply to ask questions where they're not sure about deductions, and that is one of the purposes of the 24/7 helpline. Most of the calls we get to that are primarily from PLS workers and are around life in Australia—understanding deductions and understanding payslips, or they might go to preventing issues before they become critical issues.

Senator CANAVAN: Thank you.

CHAIR: I want to turn to this question because it has been raised by senators during the day and whilst you've been here: do you think it's appropriate that unions or lawyers have a part to play in representing people's interests if there's a problem or a difficulty happening within their workplace?

Ms Heinecke : Yes. It's a really important part of both the Seasonal Worker Program and PLS guidelines that unions are included, particularly around the onsite visit that occurs. We've had a previous discussion about some of the issues around practice in that. It's one of the considerations in the PALM guidelines going forward, about notice periods, that's under consideration now.

CHAIR: What has been recommended about notification issues? For those listening, it's—

Ms Heinecke : Yes—

CHAIR: an issue that, even remotely or virtually, unions are getting only a couple of hours notice—which tends to be impractical for allocation of resources—including when people are coming in from overseas. Sometimes it's only 24 hours notice to be physically at a particular place in North Queensland, for example. So there are some difficulties going on there. What's the proposal to rectify that problem?

Ms Heinecke : We've taken on board all your suggestions. They're drafted at the moment but not yet approved because they're still under negotiation as part of a second draft. There's actually another set of guidelines that will come out in the next couple of days and they will also be shared with unions. Unions are part of this—the ACTU, for example, sits on the PALM Advisory Group, which is part of that consultation period. We regularly speak to unions, separately and as part of those advisory groups, in terms of making sure they've got input to the PALM guidelines. And we speak to them about particular issues when we need to.

I'm not in a position to say exactly what it says in there yet because they're still being approved, but we can say that we've taken on board your advice.

CHAIR: I'm a little bit confused. You just gave us an outline, and Mr McDonald gave an outline to Senator Canavan, about things that are going to be brought in in April, but you're unable to say whether the issue is going to be brought up about people not having access to the Fair Work Ombudsman and their union—integral parts of the induction program for Pacific Islanders.

Mr McDonald : May I jump in there? They do have access to the unions; freedom of association applies in Australia for these workers, the same as it does for Australians working here. They're free to participate or not to participate. That's important from our point of view. So we're on a joint ticket, if you like, in terms of wanting this scheme to work well. The idea of—

CHAIR: Sorry, Mr McDonald, you may not be aware of the evidence that was given at previous hearings. The Australian Workers Union and others have said that they've not been able to go to virtual inductions or physical inductions—obviously, virtual during COVID—because they've been given such short notice or, on occasion, no notice. That's the issue I'm dealing with here.

Ms Heinecke : At the moment, as you know, they're required to be there. As part of the revised guidelines we're looking at taking on that advice and putting in a minimum period—which won't be a matter of hours, it will be a much longer period; it's about settling exactly what that period is—for how much notice is required to be given for them to go. Really, amending the time period is what will be shifted in the guidelines.

CHAIR: Thank you for that. As you're aware, the Fair Work Ombudsman and Harvest Trail completed 836 investigations, involving 444 growers and 194 labour hire firms. More than half the investigations found breaches of workplace laws, including underpayment, falsification of records, deliberate withholding of payslips, nonpayments and unauthorised deductions.

I respect the fact that the department has followed through and I congratulate you for following through on the evidence that was given at the last Senate hearing. I'm also very mindful that potentially legal representatives and unions may be collating information for fear of one person being victimised or, as this investigation is being carried out, victimised when they've appeared before the Senate. For people to come forward with information can be quite gruelling and frightening, and having their countrymen join them in an action gives them a feeling of some security because of, frankly, weight of numbers. For those reasons, people don't give information out sometimes. It's not necessarily a reflection on DFAT or the Fair Work Ombudsman; it's the fact that the best way is for those groups to come forward and make sure there is a voice for everybody, not just the brave few to speak up.

I raise that brave few question, because of what we've seen through the Harvest Trail and the follow-up investigation where there's still considerable poor performance of employment relationships that are detrimental to the workforce. I appreciate the work that you do. I appreciate that everyone has a role to play and I think it's inappropriate to characterise unions collectively trying to give people a voice, rather than having small groups of individuals victimised or a legal firm is somehow improper. It's just a question of how that should be appropriately dealt with. Have you got anything you want to add to those comments?

Mr McDonald : From our point of view, and we want to be quite inclusive, our whole objective is to have this program working very well for not just the employee but also the employer and the Pacific countries. It's very important in our region, so we are encouraging participation across the board on that. My point earlier was: the sooner we're aware of an issue, I want to assure people that DFAT will take immediate action and I think we've shown that in the past. The other bit is, on this steering committee or group that oversees it, we've not only got the unions and the Pacific countries et cetera, we've also got community groups. The reason for that is a lot of Pacific islanders—and the liaison officer may wish to add to this—talk to others who they're familiar with, they know and they trust. We are trying to broaden the scope of who can provide us with that information, because we want to address it.

We also have, and I think these are worth mentioning, surveys and outreach for individuals—for example, the World Bank does regular surveys. The overwhelming majority of that feedback—and we can provide that to you—is that seasonal workers are very satisfied and want to come back and work in Australia again, often with the same employer. However, that doesn't mean we shouldn't be gathering all the information and reforming the program.

The final thing I'd say is we've just taken over the seasonal worker program, as you know, and we will be looking at how we can bring these programs together with best practice from both programs.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr McDonald. I very much support the program. I think it's a very important initiative with our neighbours in the Pacific. You are telling me the truth, but what you're presenting is that there is some obvious answer to the ongoing problem of 836 investigations involving 444 growers and 194 labour hire firms where more than half of the investigations found breaches of workplace laws. The point I'm making is there's a lot of work to be done to make sure this is done in a fit and proper way. With all due respect to the World Bank, I will rely on the Fair Work Ombudsman's actual investigation to find out whether Australian standards are being applied to workers who are working in this country on temporary visas or visas generally.

Mr McDonald : The only thing I'd add to that is the importance of some of the audits and checks and the like we're doing unannounced to look at exactly what you're talking about to make sure that those breaches aren't occurring.

CHAIR: Again, I'm not discounting the resources that have been allocated by various parties, and we've mentioned the departments and previous departments to date. Resources are limited. The issue, which has been raised consistently throughout this hearing by other senators, is that, in my view, they were trying to delegitimatise people's right to go to a union or to a legal firm or—which they weren't suggesting—to a government department. I think all those players have an important role to play.

Ms Heinecke : We agree, and that's why they're a really important part of what we do. I'm happy to table today the members who are on the various committees we have. We've got one committee, the PALM committee, that looks after all of it, but we've also got committees that look in more depth at each sector—the agriculture and care sectors, for example, and meatworks, which are the three big sectors that we work in.

I might just add that the Harvest Trail report obviously looked at all visa holders and Australians that work in the sector. Much of the evidence, and certainly what we get from many of the peaks that we work with in the agriculture sector, is that one of the objectives of the PALM program going forward—and it's grown significantly from, pre COVID, when it was 8,000 at any one point in time in Australia. By April we'll have about 25,000 in Australia, mostly in the agriculture sector. I think the evidence that has come forward from many experts in this sector—Joanna Howe, for example, and the ACTU has also commented on this—is that the reason we're able to rectify and know about issues in this area is that it is a regulated program. A lot of the allegations that are coming forward don't have the same level of regulation. So the fact that we've now got a lot more workers coming in under a regulated program in that sector is an important part of the reform in those sectors, which is obviously being led more broadly from the department of agriculture. But this is an important part.

Mr Sala : From the PLF's—the Pacific Labour Facility's—perspective, it's our community of care model. This is the approach that we adopted in April last year. It recognises the collective obligations of all labour mobility stakeholders, including workers themselves, in assuming, creating, maintaining and responding to welfare and wellbeing needs. It's informed by our best practice, which shows that an overreliance on a single welfare provider, isolation of workers, lack of social connections and a disjointed delivery of support can have an adverse effect on vulnerable cohorts. Our community of care, which I understand we will adopt moving forward in the PALM scheme, recognises the responsibility of all stakeholders in the upholding or supporting of workers in Australia.

Supplementary to the community of care, you have mentioned the escalation process. We have developed an escalation and response table, which clearly outlines to our stakeholders when to escalate matters. We use our regional accelerator forums around the country to educate our stakeholders in terms of what's low risk, what's medium risk and what's high risk, which needs to be escalated through to us.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Sala. I have one final question. There's an article entitled 'Samoan farmworkers told to quit 'white people' unions' by a journalist by the name of Ben Schneiders. It's from 28 February 2022. That article goes to the question of workers having been told that there have been allegations against an individual within the program. I say 'the program' because it appears, on the surface, to be the old PLS and SWP, which is now the PALM. Of those allegations, made in the Sydney Morning Herald and reprinted in the Age and numerous other places subsequently, the article states:

Samoan farmworkers in Australia were pressured to quit a union by a senior Samoan government official who warned them not to defy him because the order came from their government at home.

Has there been an investigation into that question? I'm asking that for two reasons. The second part of the question is: was the firm that was involved, where this practice is supposed to have occurred, if you've investigated it, an operation that included MADEC?

Mr McDonald : I haven't seen the article previously, but you may have.

Ms Heinecke : In relation to some letters that were sent from the UWU to the Samoan government, which were copied to us, we have had dialogue with the Samoan high commissioner, and our high commissioner has also spoken in Samoa to the government there. The Samoan government has sought information on our laws. We've provided them. They are aware of the deed, which does require deed of association, and I've spoken to the UWU a few times. The UWU is waiting for a meeting with the relevant labour minister in Samoa, who is the acting Prime Minister of Samoa at the moment. They're working, through their local partner, to resolve the issue with Samoa. I don't want to speak on behalf of the Samoan government, but, I can assure you, it is something they're focused on.

CHAIR: Are you aware whether the company, MADEC, was—the reason I'm asking this question is that we are dealing with questions of whether there's been victimisation as a result of people giving evidence to the Senate. I'm trying to get a feel for other potential areas of risk.

Ms Heinecke : My understanding, and certainly in discussions with the Samoan government and the union, is that MADEC has not been mentioned. I think, from evidence given before, MADEC has a regular meeting with the UWU. I don't know whether that's come up between them. That is something you'd need to direct towards them.

CHAIR: Can you take on notice, because MADEC's part of the program, whether you're looking at this matter?

Ms Heinecke : What we're doing is liaising with the Samoan government around the particular issues they're now taking up with the UWU. We provided them with information on Australian laws. We're not investigating the Samoan government employee.

CHAIR: Sorry, I may not have been clear. All I'm asking is whether MADEC, the labour hire firm, was involved in this particular group of workers.

Mr McDonald : We can take that on notice and have a look at it.

Ms Heinecke : We can take that on notice, yes.

CHAIR: Mr Sala, can you enlighten us at all? Palladium has a big responsibility for Pacific islanders. It seems like a lot of money, so I want to know how it's being spent. Have you made any representations regarding this article?

Mr Sala : Thank you for the opportunity. From the outset, it is not Pacific Labour Facility's responsibility. The country liaison officers are independent from us and report to their respective governments. I can provide some examples as to how, more broadly, we are building capacity not only in country but also here in Australia with our liaison officers. That includes monthly forums with our country liaison officers. Since April 2020 we've held over 30. They started weekly, then fortnightly. In these sessions, we introduce complex topics such as health insurance. Fair work is included as well. I can confirm that our liaison officers were invited in August and October last year to the Fair Work Ombudsman sessions, which included clarifying horticulture awards, compliance of legislation frameworks and Fair Work's role in Pacific labour mobility. I also invited them, on 14 April, to another session, which includes clarification around piecework arrangements for the horticultural—

CHAIR: Mr Sala, I'm just very mindful of the time. I would be very happy if you wanted to put this in writing to the committee, because of the broader issues. I appreciate the evidence you've given so far. I just have time for one more question. But you are invited to make a submission in writing to questions on notice on that; that would be more than welcome.

Ms Heinecke, you mentioned that there was a major issue that's been actioned this week. Without necessarily divulging all the details of the people who are involved, unless you see fit to do so, what is the major action this week?

Ms Heinecke : What I was trying to demonstrate is that, through our regular compliance assurance activities, if there are issues being brought forward—and in this case it was alleged by workers—we investigate it. As a result, we've now issued a notice to report on that particular employer around the allegations that were raised by workers, and that's under active investigation. It's too early to make a judgement on what the next steps will be. But that's the sort of thing that does come up as part of those compliance activities. In most cases they're minor, but in some cases they will mean referrals to the Fair Work Ombudsman, and the types of remedies they have at their disposal can be applied, of course.

CHAIR: I appreciate that. I'm not asking for the details and names of people. What has brought you to the conclusion that it's a potential major action? What are the issues?

Ms Heinecke : They're really around pay and conditions, and application of piece rates; that is what has been brought to our attention.

Mr McDonald : I think it's important in the process to be clear that the intention to report is obviously to enable the employer to put their views on those before we take action.

CHAIR: I wasn't asking for any more detail than what the first step was. Thank you very much for your time. I very much appreciate your coming and joining us today. If you have taken any questions on notice, please provide responses to the secretariat by midday on Friday 17 March 2022.

I thank the witnesses who have given evidence to the committee today. I declare this final public hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Job Security adjourned.

Committee adjourned at 13:52