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Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Page: 12488

Ms McKEW (Parliamentary Secretary for Early Childhood Education and Childcare) (4:26 PM) —I rise in support of the Migration Legislation Amendment (Worker Protection) Bill 2008. The Rudd government has committed to this $19.6 million package of migration measures over four years to improve and strengthen the integrity of Australia’s temporary worker visa program, the largest component of which is the 457 visa category. The worker protection bill is part of this package and addresses and corrects the problems with the program which were identified by the Rudd Labor government when in opposition.

The most recognisable of these problems was the well-publicised exploitation of overseas workers. The changes to the program implemented by the previous government attempted to manage the damage but failed to do so. This bill is part of the long-term reforms which will be developed in the 2009-10 budget process. These reforms promise to overhaul the temporary workers visa program, which has not been working effectively for overseas workers, for the Australian labour market or for employers.

Australia’s temporary worker visa program is an uncapped, demand-driven program dependent on employer sponsorship. Overseas skilled workers receive temporary employment for a period of up to four years in areas where there are skills shortages. It is important to note that the temporary worker visa program does not take jobs from Australian citizens. The Rudd government has addressed the longer-term issue of training and educating Australians by funding an ambitious initiative on workforce participation and productivity. This will provide for 630,000 new training places for Australians over a period of five years. However, the workforce participation and productivity initiative does not solve the immediate problem of skills shortages. The worker protection bill addresses this problem and assists employers to gain the skilled workers that they need now.

Australia is a nation built on immigration. Over 50,000 years ago Australia’s Indigenous people travelled across land and sea to these shores. Years later they were followed by the modern world and those whose actions against property and industry landed them a passage across the seas, transported as convicts. They were followed by the free, whose skills were welcomed as the supply and demand grew. The wool industry flourished during the 1820s and so too did the need for labour. Opportunities to make a fortune brought many throughout the gold rush era from 1851 through to 1860. During this period the first non-Anglo-Celtic migrants were the Chinese. These labourers and their need for supplies of all kinds drew other entrepreneurs and business people, filling the landscape with differences and diversity not dissimilar to those Australia experiences today.

The 1860s bought Melanesian labourers to work on the plantations in Queensland. A perceived imbalance in population resulted in deliberate attempts to attract women to Australia at the turn of the century. The mid-1900s brought Afghani, Pakistani and Turkish camel handlers, whose skills were essential to exploring Australia’s dry, flat interior. In the late 19th century we again turned seaward and the skills of Japanese pearl fishers were used to establish the pearling industry. After the two world wars, we saw Western and Eastern Europeans grace our shores—ex-servicemen, assisted passage recipients, labourers, farmers and refugees, the displaced and homeless and Australia’s first humanitarian entrants. They came then as they come now: to escape persecution, to rebuild their lives and to meet the demands of our industry for labour.

My electorate of Bennelong has many generations of migrants, both old and new. They are found working in hospitals and medical centres; in the industries of science, information technology and business; in restaurants and shops; and in factories and mines. They enhance our community and keep the Australian economy moving forwards. The ethnic diversity in Bennelong ensures that most regional cuisines are represented. Local community groups and community centres, such as the North Ryde community centre, keep a great number of wonderful traditions and cultures active and accessible to Bennelong constituents.

In 2007 the temporary worker visa program represented 66 per cent of Australia’s total migration program. The top source countries are the United Kingdom, India, the Philippines and the USA. The most commonly nominated occupations are computing professionals, registered nurses, GPs, and business and information professionals. However, in response to labour market needs over the last three years the demand for trade-level occupations has increased. This change has caused essential amendments to be made to Australia’s temporary worker visa programs. An extensive amount of research and investigation has been undertaken in developing the Rudd government’s package of migration measures.

In April this year the minister appointed Commissioner Barbara Deegan, a senior industrial commissioner, to review the industrial issues relating to the temporary worker visa program. Her report takes into consideration consultation with stakeholders. It is complemented by the work of an external reference group, which examined the temporary worker visa program from an industry perspective. Ms Deegan’s report is currently being reviewed by the Skilled Migration Consultative Panel, which comprises business and industry groups, unions and state governments. Based on the depth of these investigations, the panel is due to report its recommendations to the government early next year.

The Migration Legislation Amendment (Worker Protection) Bill 2008 is an important part of these reforms and is designed to improve protection of overseas workers, meet the genuine needs of the Australian labour market and protect its integrity, and restore public confidence in the temporary worker visa program. The Rudd government is committed to ensuring the effectiveness of this program. The key improvements offered by this bill include expanded powers to monitor and investigate possible non-compliance by sponsors. Inspectors of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship will be specially trained to monitor compliance. This will include the ability to conduct site visits and inspections, interview sponsor employers and employees, inspect and copy documentation as required and request the further production of documentation. Sponsors who fail to cooperate and provide requested information within the time period face imprisonment for up to six months. Alternatively, failures can incur a bar on or cancellation of sponsorship. Under the amendment, self-reporting is also required. Inspectors will have the power to investigate all matters relating to migration and workplace relations to ensure compliance by sponsors, and to protect workers rights and the integrity of the visa program.

The bill also introduces penalties for employers found in breach of their obligations. The amendments will include new civil penalty proceedings and infringement notices, which are designed to discourage non-compliance. Employers who fail to satisfy their obligations will have civil legal action taken against them through the Federal Court. The maximum penalties faced will be $6,600 for individuals and $33,000 for corporate bodies.

The bill also offers an improved sponsorship framework and better-defined obligations for employers and other sponsors. A significant aspect of this bill is that it provides a consistent approach to all temporary worker visas. Sponsors are compelled by law to comply but the introduction of a standardised sponsorship framework will simplify the process and create more flexible provisions for employers. This in turn also protects workers by obliging sponsors to take responsibility for them in a fair and reasonable way.

The bill addresses the issue of, and improves, information sharing for the first time. Immigration officials will now be able to check the tax records of employers and employees to ensure that correct wages are paid. This amendment facilitates a full exchange of information between overseas workers, sponsors and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. It also allows information sharing between other relevant state and territory government agencies. This model of interactive information sharing recognises the importance of communication between all parties.

In conclusion, as part of the Rudd government’s package of migration measures, the Migration Legislation Amendment (Worker Protection) Bill 2008 is an important part of the long-term reforms which are being developed. Essentially, this bill guarantees the effectiveness and integrity of the temporary worker visa program. It provides for greater protection for overseas workers, meets the needs of the labour market and restores public confidence in the program. It accomplishes this by: expanding powers to monitor and investigate; introducing new penalties for employers found to be in breach of their obligations; improving the sponsorship framework and creating standardised obligations; and facilitating a full exchange of information between workers, sponsors and the relevant government departments. I commend the bill to the House.