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Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Page: 12485

Mr SHORTEN (Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services) (4:13 PM) —It gives me great pleasure to rise today to speak in support of the Migration Legislation Amendment (Worker Protection) Bill 2008. ‘Worker protection’ is not a phrase that was heard much in this place in the 11 years prior to the election of the Rudd Labor government—or to be more specific, not heard from the previous occupants of the government benches. That, thankfully, has changed. Already this week we have seen the Fair Work Bill being debated in the House, a bill which will nail closed once and for all the coffin of the previous Liberal government’s Work Choices. It will erase, it will cleanse, it will put a stake in the heart of those very poor laws that we are seeking to replace—with the support, I might add, of those in the opposition who were Work Choices cheerleaders just a scant year ago. The Fair Work Bill delivers the government’s election promises set out in the policy, Forward with Fairness. In fact, the reason this is relevant to the legislation which I am supporting today is that the new laws will swing the workplace pendulum back to the middle where it belongs and where Australians want it to be. The government’s new fair and balanced workplace relations system has enterprise bargaining at its heart to drive productivity. The laws are about bargaining in good faith at the enterprise level, underpinned by a fair and decent safety net of employment conditions. This is good for employers, good for employees and good for the economy.

The importance of resolving fair work laws in Australia is that no scheme involving the use of temporary skilled workers can ever be well founded if the safety net for Australian workers is in fact not working—and therefore the Fair Work Bill is inextricably linked to the proper operation of the use of people on temporary visas working here. Indeed, the bill in question today, the Migration Legislation Amendment (Worker Protection) Bill 2008, is another significant step towards ensuring that all workers in Australia, whether local or overseas workers, have the protection that is their right in an Australian workplace.

Mr Deputy Speaker, you would be aware that the former government introduced the temporary business long-stay subclass 457 visa in 1996 in order to—to quote the excellent Bills Digest on the subject:

… rationalise arrangements for the “temporary entry of business people and highly qualified specialists, to simplify procedures, and to introduce a degree of self-regulation for certain employers of holders of Subclass 457 visas.”

But did it live up to this high-minded purpose? I am sad to report that the outcome was the contrary. My former colleagues in the union movement, as well as my current colleagues in the government, and I grew increasingly concerned about the former government’s 457 visa system as instances of abuse and exploitation mounted up. We heard story after story of a worker being brought to Australia on a 457 visa to do one job only to find another, lesser job waiting. Frequently the guest workers would be charged premium rent to share poor accommodation with any number of others in the same position. In fact, many of our temporary guests, far from being paid what they were promised, were sometimes not even paid at all.

Instances of human rights abuses like these were, sadly, not rare. I refer to the cases cited in April 2007 by the then Labor spokesman for immigration, the member for Watson. He made it clear a Labor government would act on these egregious abuses. He said:

I want to stop … the situation where we saw a printing employee in Melbourne having to purchase a $42,000 job at a fee of $20,000 that came out of his pay over the course of twelve months in weekly deductions. Once he fully repaid the debt, at that moment his job was terminated under the new WorkChoices laws—

or the then Work Choices laws. The member for Watson continued:

I want to see the end of the situation of 40 Filipino welders in Goodna, in Queensland, where they were in a situation where they were being paid the legal rate. The legal rate was $20,000 less than the market rate in that part of Queensland—

thus effectively destroying the local labour market. He went on:

And they were in an accommodation deal for $175 a week rent.

As the member for Watson said, ‘It might sound like a reasonable rent,’ $175, except there were eight of them to a house and they were paying $175 per week each—not such a good deal for these people whom Australia needed and invited in as our skills shortage grew to crisis levels.

I have said before in the parliament that one of the major failures of the Howard government was its cavalier, ‘leave it alone’, ‘it’s not our problem’, ‘bother me later’ attitude towards our future prosperity, evidenced by its neglect of skills formation in Australia. The Skills Australia legislation introduced by the government earlier in the year will go a long way towards creating and boosting the education and Skills Australia needs to confront the productivity and workforce challenges facing us as a nation. Similarly, the raft of packages associated with our education revolution underlines our commitment to getting Australia back on the right track after years of neglect in this crucial area.

Australia, under the previous government, simply did not train enough new or existing workers to keep up with the demands on our economy and our workforce, leading to the very skills shortage which the temporary workers visa program was designed to address. And, indeed, there was a ghost army of domestic workers who were ignored, time and time and time again, in the 11½ years of the Howard government. On this International Day of People with Disability, I clearly am referring to people with disability, who experienced, under the Howard government, far greater unemployment and far lower levels of participation in the workforce than any other sector of the workforce. Indeed, in the 12 years of the Howard government, the number of those receiving the disability support pension exploded from 499,000 in March 1996 to over 700,000 by the time of the departure of the Howard government. And what was being done to employ these very capable people? Nothing. Instead, we saw the reach-for-the-trigger solution, which would see the push for a class of 457 workers, who were simply being exploited, rather than us simply investing in people with disabilities in Australia.

As I have put forward, and as we have heard previously, the old program allowed a minority—and, I stress, only a minority, but still, a minority who exist—of unscrupulous employers to abuse their workers and the system itself. ‘How was this allowed to happen?’ you might ask, Mr Deputy Speaker. ‘Where was the oversight?’ you might ask. ‘Where was the integrity of the program?’ For too many, too much was missing in action. Eventually, after rolling revelations, after being flooded with complaints, after constant lobbying and exposes by the trade unions and federal Labor, even the former member for Bennelong knew that something had to be done. There was even some legislation drafted. But the government had left it so late to offer these overseas workers some protection that they ran out of time and, in a short time, were run out of office.

The bill we are speaking to today will put teeth, integrity and grunt into the 457 visa process. It expands the powers to monitor and investigate possible noncompliance by sponsors. New inspectorial powers have been based on the Workplace Relations Act, and provide the power to enter workplaces if they believe there is a need to. Trained investigators will be allowed to inspect premises, interview anyone they feel is relevant, and to request and copy any pertinent documents. The bill introduces penalties, big penalties, for employers found to be in breach of their obligations. Breaches of sponsorship obligations can still lead to barring and cancelling, but will now be backed up by infringement notices and civil penalties of up to $33,000. The bill puts in place greater information-sharing amongst government agencies. For example, it will allow the Australian tax office to disclose to the department information relating to a visa holder, former visa holder, approved sponsor or former approved sponsor, in order to confirm what taxable salary is being paid to visa holders and ensure that they are being paid correctly, and it lays out defined sponsorship obligations for employers and other sponsors. Under this bill, the regulations may prescribe obligations that an approved sponsor must satisfy. These obligations will set out the time and the manner in which an obligation must be satisfied and, for the first time, obligations will be enforceable by law.

I know that most employers, the overwhelming majority, do the right thing by their employees—but there are scallywags out there, aren’t there? So this bill will allow an approved sponsor not to have to go through the whole sponsorship approval process again when they are seeking a variation to their sponsorship—less red tape, and more efficiency.

These are valuable and necessary changes to a system that is important to Australia. As our immigration minister has said, the temporary working visa scheme is only sustainable if the community is confident that overseas workers are not being exploited or used to undermine local wages and conditions. The Rudd government is committed to ensuring that the subclass 457 visa scheme operates as efficiently as possible in contributing to the supply of skilled labour while protecting the employment and training opportunities of Australians and the rights of overseas workers.

The changes outlined in the bill are not the end of the matter, either. The minister is currently considering longer-term reforms to the 457 visa program, considerations informed by Barbara Deegan’s excellent Visa Subclass 457 Integrity Review, handed down earlier this month. Barbara Deegan, a commissioner in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, consulted widely for her review and has made a number of recommendations aimed at strengthening the integrity of the temporary visa system. Those opposite, who sometimes scoff and jeer at consultation, should perhaps again watch the reruns from the ABC documentary The Howard Years. What a remarkable revelation some of the speakers in that are. We certainly have learnt from some of the former ministers of the Howard government of their disdain for consultation—and that disdain is nothing new. In fact, it would appear that the former Prime Minister often failed to consult his own cabinet before making important decisions. That may explain a great deal.

By contrast, we believe that by involving people on the ground—those within the system and without—we can get a much better understanding of what is required. One of Ms Deegan’s many recommendations is to abolish the minimum salary level in favour of market rates of pay for all temporary visa holders on salaries less than $100,000. From personal experience travelling throughout Australia and to many rural and remote work sites, looking at the market rate rather than the minimum salary level will at least protect the local labour market and conditions. After all, when CEOs from around the world receive salaries in Australia they do not quote the award rate—they quote the market rates in New York and London.

Ms Deegan has also recommended the development of an accreditation system, or a risk matrix, to ensure the rapid processing of low-risk visa applications so employers can meet skills needs quickly. She has recommended developing new lists setting out the skilled occupations for which temporary work visas can be granted. In addition, it is recommended that visa holders be limited to a stay of no longer than eight years in Australia while providing, most importantly, a pathway to permanent residency for those who have the required language skills.

These and Ms Deegan’s other recommendations are being considered by the Skilled Migration Consultative Panel made up of business and industry groups, state governments and unions. I for one look forward to seeing the minister’s proposals for further reforms next year. In the meantime, I am proud that this government has once more stepped in, stepped up, to protect the rights of workers to ensure they are free from abuse and neglect. All workers in Australia, wherever they come from and no matter what they do, deserve no less and I commend this bill to the House.