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Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Page: 12491

Mr BUTLER (4:35 PM) —It is with considerable pleasure that I rise to support the Migration Legislation Amendment (Worker Protection) Bill 2008. This bill, as the member for Bennelong has just said, represents a desperately needed response to some unacceptable behaviour by a small minority of employers in this country. It is a bill that unashamedly seeks to bring to account those in our community who have sought to exploit fellow human beings for profit. It is a bill that also seeks to preserve the integrity of Australian workers’ wages and conditions by ensuring that they are not undercut.

The bill’s objects are clear and concise. It puts in place a structure to clearly define sponsorship obligations. It allows for improved information sharing across all levels of government. It provides for improved powers for relevant authorities to monitor and investigate breaches by sponsors, and it provides penalties with teeth against those who seek to exploit the system. In short, this bill provides long-overdue protections for vulnerable migrant workers and, just as importantly, preserves the integrity of hard-fought workers’ wages and conditions here in Australia.

It is hard to fathom that any group or individual could or would raise an objection to this bill and the measures contained within. Unfortunately, there are some in our community who have voiced opposition to these measures. Some employer groups and associations, or employer unions, have described the bill as a ‘disproportionate response’ to some well-established scandals and rorts in this area. ‘Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut’ is an expression I have heard from some of these bodies.

For years our print and electronic media have been properly highlighting some of the more atrocious cases of abuse in the 457 visa program, more often than not having had the matters brought to their attention by trade unions. There have been numerous successful prosecutions that have been well documented and recorded. These, of course, occurred after the offending behaviour had been endured, quite often for considerable periods of time.

There has been considerable community disquiet regarding the whole 457 visa process, and this government is responding to that disquiet. As the member for Bennelong just said, we instigated a thorough review of the entire system—the 457 subclass integrity review by Ms Barbara Deegan, a very experienced industrial commissioner—the report of which has recently been received by the minister.

The previous government was well aware of the community disquiet in this area and, in an election year, actually prepared a bill not too dissimilar to the one before the House today. They announced it with some fanfare, I remember, but the bill was never debated and has never passed into law. This government has, in essence, adopted the measures from the previous government’s bill and made some necessary improvements.

There has been some debate regarding the level of abuse carried out under the scheme. Some parties allege it as widespread and rampant while others argue that the rorts have been few and isolated and that the system is working well. I see that as a sterile argument. One case of abuse and exploitation is one too many if a system can be put in place to prevent it. The examples in the evidence have been clear: the current 457 system is broken. This government is taking the necessary steps to fix it—something those on the other side failed to do.

I have been made aware of a situation where upwards of ten 457 visa holders were housed in a modest three-bedroom home. They were all working on various rostered shifts. Each of them was being charged $200 per week rent for a dwelling that had a market rental value of a maximum of $350 per week. The agent responsible for these visa holders was therefore receiving around $2,000 per week for overcrowded, substandard accommodation. The workers would basically swap beds as they swapped shifts. There is nothing illegal in that—I accept that—but there is outrageous exploitation of vulnerable workers going on right here in 21st century Australia.

There is a clear need to strengthen and tighten obligations on sponsors who seek to bring these workers into Australia. The obligations on sponsors are to be set out in regulations to the act. This will occur after consideration of the extensive Deegan review that I spoke about earlier. Stakeholders such as employers, unions and state governments will also have a further opportunity to provide input into the scope and tenor of the regulations. Some parties have expressed unease that this bill is to be passed prior to the detail of the regulations being known. I see those concerns as misplaced. Regulations that are overly onerous or that fail to achieve the stated and intended objectives of the act are subject to disallowance by the Senate. The regulations must provide true protection to migrant workers, and I believe all fair-minded parties—especially this government—have that as their key goal.

The bill provides for civil penalties and infringement notices. Some have called for criminal sanctions. It is clear that the current administrative sanctions have not been sufficient to ensure that the spirit of the scheme is adhered to. I am pleased to note that the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs has recommended a review of the legislation within the first three years of its operation. It will be important to monitor this bill’s effectiveness and ensure that the new penalty and enforcement regime is having the desired effect.

I mentioned the Barbara Deegan report—a long-overdue examination of the practical operation of the 457 visa scheme. That report will provide the Skilled Migration Consultative Panel with much food for thought as it provides the government with advice and feedback concerning the type of skilled migration program that will benefit this nation going forward. The report contains over 60 recommendations. Many of those recommendations regard the pay rates of those working under these temporary visas. One that I find very persuasive is the suggestion that these workers must have the same terms and conditions of employment as all other employees in the relevant workplace. Adoption of such a principle would put to bed fears in the community at large that this scheme is simply a fancy cover for cheap labour. It will send a clear message to employers that they must first look to the local job market.

I suppose I should not be surprised that the current scheme is in need of urgent remedial action by the new Rudd Labor government. The opposition made unfairness and inequity in the workplace a hallmark of their almost 12 years in government. Their ambush on the working men and women of Australia following the 2004 election is now an infamous chapter in Australia’s history. Work Choices was a blunt and unsophisticated attack on the pay and conditions of ordinary Australian workers. It should come as no surprise then that they held equal disdain for the pay and conditions of guest workers in this country. In contrast, the Rudd government approaches these important issues with openness and integrity. We invite input from all stakeholders, with balance and fairness our touchstone. This is what the Australian people want from their government. This is a bill about basic decency. I urge all members of the House to support the bill and I commend it to the House.