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Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Page: 12482


Ms MARINO (4:01 PM) —I rise to speak on the Migration Legislation Amendment (Worker Protection) Bill 2008. I will start by asking: where are the regulations that should be part of this legislation? Is the government planning to introduce such onerous or costly regulations that Australian employers will not seek to employ 457 visa holders, compromising productivity and growth? I want to speak on the impacts and issues affecting my electorate of Forrest in the south-west of Western Australia. The south-west is one of the fastest growing and most diverse and dynamic regions in Australia, with a gross regional product in excess of $6.9 billion. The south-west also has one of the most diverse regional economies in Western Australia, with abundant mineral deposits, processing and export, excellent agricultural soils, access to some of the best-quality water in Australia, hardwood forests, and substantial manufacturing, construction, commercial, retail, fishing and tourism industries. As with other key regions of Western Australia, the south-west has been a driver of the booming state economy.

It is a matter of record that the coalition government’s policies assisted an additional two million Australians into employment, with well over 10.6 million Australians in work—a record high. The unemployment rate in Australia was 4.3 per cent in October 2007—a 33-year low. Over 7.6 million Australians are in full-time employment, and three million in part-time work. And in spite of the impact of the global financial crisis, the impact of decisions by this government that have made the financial situation worse—the proposed emissions trading scheme, the mandatory renewable energy targets—the impact of Alcoa shelving their $2.2 billion expansion plans at Wagerup, the impact of the Varanus gas explosion in the south-west and the challenges facing the LNG industry and investment potential, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry Western Australia maintains that the Western Australian economy will grow by 5.5 per cent this financial year. That is a phenomenal growth projection considering the current circumstances, and it is a practical indication of the continuing need for workers.

In WA Business News on 13 November, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA Chief Executive, James Pearson, said:

… let’s remember that right now we still need workers in WA. We’ll get them from other states if we can, but we need them both permanently and temporarily from overseas.

In spite of falling demand and slowing growth, there is still a demand for skilled and unskilled workers. In my electorate of Forrest, overseas workers have proven to be a lifeline for many businesses of all sizes where local skilled labour could not be sourced to fill the significant vacancies. Unemployment fell from six per cent in 1999 to three per cent in 2007, and parts of my electorate had just over two per cent unemployment during the same period. In this tight employment environment, 457 visa holders have played a key role in regional businesses, particularly in recent years when the historic workforce has taken up highly paid, fly-in fly-out positions in the mining sector in the north-west of the state. In my region, overseas workers were the last resort for many businesses trying to maintain or increase capacity.

There were 360 457 visas granted in the 2007-08 financial year in the south-west. They were across all areas of business. There were 90 in construction, 50 in health care and social assistance, 50 in manufacturing and 40 in accommodation and food services—just to mention the major categories. One local business in my electorate has had no option but to use 457 visa holders. I visited the business in 2007 and it employs 800 people across Australia—heavy-duty mechanics, heavy equipment operators, truck drivers, welders and administration staff. The proprietor said to me: ‘I’d really like to employ local workers, but where are they? They have all gone off to the mines. They sure aren’t queuing up to work here.’ He offered me the keys to the workers’ bus and said, ‘You go and round up anyone you can find to work here and I’ll employ them.’

That company had no choice but to use 457 visa holders. It put in place a specific process to manage and integrate the workers into the workforce and the local community. A consultant was used in the process. The interviews of tradespeople were taped in the workers’ country of origin. After being assessed for English language and comprehension, the company arranged and provided remuneration and support infrastructure. The 457 visa holder and their family were also encouraged to become involved in their local community through schools and other organisations. Basic support is provided at nominal cost to not create problems with local employees; however, weekly English lessons were provided free of charge. Language, health and safety are vital to the company and the employees. The company has had a comprehensive review without any problems.

I am concerned for this company and other companies having to employ 457 visa holders because as yet we have not seen the regulations on the obligations of sponsorship—something we will need to scrutinise when they are finally tabled. The April discussion paper refers to regulation considerations of potential new payment obligations for the employer. It will be interesting to see whether these obligations will discourage potential sponsor employers from sourcing 457 workers. One option contained in the discussion paper is that sponsors will pay all medical costs, either through insurance or direct payment, including medical costs where the insurance company refuses to pay. The obligation for employers to pay the medical costs of their sponsored visa holder and all family members even when the insurance company refuses to pay will preclude employers from sourcing 457 workers. I have a very current and practical demonstration of this.

An abattoir in my electorate had a very hard time finding employees. This is the same company whose labour agreement with the government has taken over seven months to approve. This company continues to need skilled workers. The company representatives were travelling overseas to appraise workers to ensure they qualified as claimed. One meatworker was sponsored to work in the abattoir. He brought his family with him. The abattoir carried the required insurance; however, a family member of the sponsored worker was out of Australia when he was involved in a serious motor vehicle accident. Tragically, he became a paraplegic and now requires around-the-clock care. The worker approached his sponsor and indicated that he needed to claim the medical expenses on his insurance. As the accident occurred out of the country, the insurance company denied all liability. The department of immigration has said that the company is liable, regardless of whether the insurance company is liable.

The cost of having the patient stay in permanent care is, according to the company, amounting to approximately $50,000 per month. The sponsor could not have done any more to ensure the security of his worker and his family. The fact that a business can be liable when the insurance company does not accept the claim will be too great a risk for employers. There may well be other instances where insurance companies refuse to pay claims—for example, a drink driver involved in an incident that causes injury may well be outside the conditions of the insurance contract.

This further exposes a very serious problem with the bill itself—the fact that there are no regulations accompanying it, no details, no certainty or clarity for employers or 457 workers. What will the regulation on such insurance and liability issues be? When the regulations are eventually provided they will be retrospective. Given the experience of the business in my electorate I have no doubt the lack of regulations poses an unacceptable serious risk for them and other employers from a government clearly unable to provide the required regulations at the time of introducing the bill. What additional compliance and monitoring will be included in the regulations when they are finally provided? What additional impediment to productivity and growth will these impose on businesses? I do not want to see this program made any more difficult for my local businesses. There are other aspects of the 457 program that I am waiting to see in the regulations.

Truck drivers have recently been removed from the 457 visa list. They are no longer considered sufficiently or adequately skilled to meet the criteria. I tell you what: I seriously dispute this—and in fact I dispute it vigorously. Truck drivers are extremely skilled workers. Just look at the demand in the mining sector for experienced heavy vehicle operators. Excluding truck drivers as skilled workers indicates the government clearly does not value, respect or understand the transport industry. How many unskilled workers could safely and efficiently operate a three-trailer, 130-tonne road train or a 42-tonne semi or a 65-tonne B-double combination? Truck drivers are highly skilled operators. They have to know how to handle weight safely. If you speak to the good truck drivers they will tell you it is an enormous skill to be able to load in a safe manner and manage the weight. People’s lives and the driver’s own life are at risk.

The driver also has to know the road rules and rules governing heavy vehicles and to have a working mechanical knowledge of the vehicle. Usually he or she needs to be a combination of a heavy-duty mechanic—a bush mechanic at least—an auto electrician, a manager with organisational skills and a person who has knowledge of duty of care and fatigue management. Overall, I would say broad knowledge and skills are needed—all of this, yet the government have removed truck drivers from the skilled worker list on the 457 program.

The 457 program has been a success in my electorate as it has in many different employment sectors. However, the failure of the government to provide confidence and clarity through well structured regulations clearly defining the obligations for those currently using or needing to use the 457 scheme is the weakness of this bill and I will be scrutinising the regulations closely when they are finally tabled in the House.