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Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Page: 12505

Mr ZAPPIA (5:33 PM) —I too rise to speak in support of the Migration Legislation Amendment (Worker Protection) Bill 2008, and note that the bill is, in principle, similar to the Migration Amendment (Sponsorship Obligations) Bill 2007 introduced into the parliament by the previous government on 21 June 2007. That bill was referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, which subsequently tabled its report on 7 August 2007. But the bill was never debated and subsequently lapsed when the parliament was prorogued.

I also note that the original bill, the Migration Amendment (Sponsorship Obligations) Bill 2007, arose at a time when the Joint Standing Committee on Migration was inquiring into issues relating to temporary business section 457 visas. This Migration Legislation Amendment (Worker Protection) Bill includes important extra measures to the previous bill and has also been considered by two Senate committees—the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills and the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.

This bill is fundamentally about the protection of workers in Australia, with specific reference in this case to temporary workers who are brought into Australia under temporary visas. I listened earlier to the contribution from the member for Wills, and I thought he made an excellent contribution in summing up the issues that have arisen in years gone by and that, in effect, caused both the previous government and the current government to look at temporary visas and how they were being applied to people who were being brought into this country for work purposes.

Regrettably, many of these workers, once in Australia, were exploited by unscrupulous employers, with many examples of underpayment, poor living conditions and unsatisfactory workplace conditions. For many of these workers, once they were here there was little choice but to work under whatever conditions they were exposed to. It was worker exploitation at its worst. They could not get work elsewhere, they needed whatever income they earned to survive and there was no-one they could turn to for assistance without risking having their work visa cancelled.

This is still occurring today because the laws we have in place relating to this issue are totally inadequate, having been made more inadequate by the previous government’s Work Choices laws. Only two weeks ago, two separate matters in respect to workers being exploited in this country were raised with me. One related to workers who were unskilled, the other related to workers who were very skilled. It still goes on today, and so the sooner this legislation is adopted by parliament, the better.

Under existing laws, department of immigration officers have neither the powers nor the resources to monitor and enforce the workplace practices of those who sponsor 457 visa entrants. Nor does the Australian Taxation Office have powers or authority with respect to those same issues. Regrettably, the coalition Work Choices legislation not only provided employers with incredible scope for exploitation of the most vulnerable workers but also ensured that workers’ unions, which in the past would have protected such workers, were shut out. Many of these workers were from developing countries. It is true that any money that they earned while in Australia was more than what they might have earned in their own country, but after paying for their living expenses here, sometimes including exorbitant accommodation costs, employment agency costs and migration agency costs, they were left with nothing.

While on the subject of migration, I take this opportunity to refer to another matter. On Monday in question time, we had the member for Murray make the outrageous assertion that the Rudd government’s detention policy was causing a surge of boat people into Australia. On the same night, Monday, 1 December, the Joint Standing Committee on Migration presented its first report on detention policy in Australia, having spent the past 12 months inquiring into detention centres and the appalling treatment of refugees in Australia. All members of the committee agreed that Australia’s appalling detention policies in recent years had been unjust and were cause for much criticism of the Australian government. The committee made 18 recommendations in that report, all recommending a much more humane treatment of refugees. In fact, two of the coalition members submitted a dissenting report arguing that the committee’s recommendations did not go far enough, and nor did the Rudd government’s new detention—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. KJ Andrews)—Order! I have allowed some remarks which are drifting away from the subject of this bill, but I invite the member for Makin to come back to the subject matter of the bill.

Mr ZAPPIA —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. The remarks I am making are relevant to this bill because this bill is about human rights. If I am allowed to continue my remarks, I will demonstrate how the remarks I am making are in fact very relevant to the bill we are debating.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Well, what I have heard so far is, I believe, not relevant to the bill, and I say that in the context that the matter which you have been referring to is a parliamentary committee report and there are other opportunities to raise matters in relation to a parliamentary committee report. So I once again invite you to come back to the subject matter of the bill.

Mr ZAPPIA —Mr Deputy Speaker, again I thank you for your guidance. Earlier on in the same debate the member for Fadden referred to the very matter that I am responding to now and—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —All I can say to the member for Makin—and he may feel this is a little unfair—is that I was not here when those alleged remarks were made by the member for Fadden, and I will not repeat myself. Please proceed on the subject matter of the bill.

Mr ZAPPIA —Mr Deputy Speaker, as I said a moment ago, this matter and the issue we are discussing are all about human rights and people’s rights. I simply point out that those rights were the subject of considerable work by a committee of this parliament and it was the committee’s view that the rights of people who come into this country ought to be protected and that the policies of the past did not go far enough in protecting them. The point I am clearly making is that the committee’s view was supported by all members of the committee—including members of the coalition, who now seek to suggest that the views expressed by the committee, which in turn support government policy, are the cause of, supposedly, a surge of people wanting to come to this country. I simply say this, Mr Deputy Speaker: this is, in my view, another example of coalition members saying one thing but doing another. They come into this House and take a particular position on a matter and then, at the first possible opportunity, take the opposite position on the same matter. And if one member takes one position, then another takes an entirely different position. This matter—you have asked me to reflect on whether it is relevant to this debate—was further raised not just by one speaker from the coalition but by a number of speakers from the coalition when they were speaking on this very bill. And it seems to me that if we are going to debate the rights and wrongs of any legislation in this place and how it applies to human rights then the alternative argument ought to be allowed to be put. But, Mr Deputy Speaker, I take your guidance and I will move on.

In respect of the very issue that I was speaking to and the purported comments made by other members—which I must say were disputed by the very person who some of those comments were attributed to, and which were reported in one of the newspapers—on the same day that some of those comments were made, yesterday, the Prime Minister came into the chamber and moved a motion on Australia’s support for human rights in this country, recognising the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That motion was immediately followed by a bipartisan supporting statement by the Leader of the Opposition, who seconded the Prime Minister’s motion. This is about human rights—a motion to do with human rights and how we should treat people once they come into this country. A number of speakers from the coalition spoke in support of the human rights motion that the Prime Minister moved. Yet I heard them, on the same day, come out and again state a position which was clearly in contradiction of the very principles which the Leader of the Opposition says we should be supporting and upholding. Mr Deputy Speaker, I ask again: does the opposition leader in fact speak on behalf of all members of the coalition, or is this a case where opposition members, both frontbenchers and backbenchers, are clearly undermining the opposition leader?

More importantly, I think that the Australian public have a right to know just what the real position of the coalition is on all of these matters. It is not reasonable to have one position coming from one member, another position coming from a member on the front bench, and yet another position coming from the Leader of the Opposition. I believe that the Australian people are entitled to know, when it comes to all of these matters, just what the position of the coalition is. And it is no different from what we are seeing right now in another bill that is being debated in this place, and that is the Fair Work Bill, where again we are constantly being told that the opposition does not oppose this bill, yet speaker after speaker comes into the chamber and condemns it.

Let us go back one step in respect of how this bill arose. The reason these workers are coming into Australia is to fulfil shortages of skilled and professional workers needed by Australian industries. And why is there a shortage of skilled workers? Because the previous coalition government failed to invest adequately in education and skills training, that is why; it is as clear and simple as that. Had the previous government put the effort and money into supporting the training, education and skilling-up of people in this country over the last decade, there would not be the need to bring in skilled workers from overseas.

Yet yesterday, we had the absurd proposition of the opposition raising as a matter of public importance the issue relating to the state of Australia’s health services. One of the key problems facing Australia’s delivery of good health services in this country is the shortage of nurses and doctors. That shortage has occurred because over the last decade there were not enough places in our universities to train doctors and nurses. It is as simple as that. So for the opposition members to come in here and criticise this government for problems which have resulted from their own negligence is, I must say, hypocritical in the least.

We do face serious skills shortages across most employment sectors in Australia. Those shortages are causing serious productivity constraints. In the interim, we are forced to rely on skilled people from overseas. We see it prevalent in the health sector, in the information and technology sector and in the science sectors. Global recruiting has become standard practice of many Australian employers. I want to relay another example of a matter that I raised in the House probably three or four months ago when I was talking about immigration. In the region that I represent there is the group of industry leaders that we refer to as the Northern Economic Leaders Group. These are senior industry leaders in South Australia. It is a good group that is working in collaboration with the government to try and address a whole range of problems including the skills shortage problems. In a meeting some six months ago, every single person that came to that meeting and sat around the table said that their single biggest crisis was their inability to find skilled workers to fill the positions that they had available in their industries. It was a major issue for every single one of them, so we accept that there will be a need to bring people in from overseas to fill those jobs.

But if they are to be brought in then we also accept that they ought to be brought in and be treated as we would like to be treated ourselves if we were to be employed in the position that we offer them. They ought to be given the same level of protection as every other worker who comes into this country and who works in this country. And they ought to be given the same level of protection that they would be given if they went to other countries. Sadly, one of the problems was that, under the previous government’s Work Choices legislation, it was not just the skilled workers brought in from overseas that were given no protection; all workers were given little protection. It makes it pretty hard to say, ‘You are not treating the skilled workers coming from overseas right,’ when they say, ‘It is no different to the way we have been treating other workers in this country for the last few years.’

We have to do two things, and thank God that this government is doing them. One is repealing the Work Choices legislation and introducing the Fair Work legislation of the Rudd government, and the other is fixing up the issues associated with workers who come in under 457 visas. That is exactly what this bill is going to do.

Finally, I just want to make this point. Many of the workers who are most exploited when they come into this country are those who are employed in what you would refer to as low-skilled areas of occupation. Over the last three or four years I have spoken with a whole range of people in industry sectors who have had various levels of experience with people working in low-skilled areas, and I have to say that the stories that have got back to me are absolutely appalling. I have heard stories where people who come to this country are perhaps brought here by a member of their own community who then in a sense organises them but equally exploits them; and stories of other people who come into this country, again brought in by maybe a migration agency or another person from their own community, who then have to pay a fair share of their income to that person. If they object, information is immediately passed on to the authorities and their visa is cancelled for one reason or another. Some of these people are the very people who ended up in detention centres—and the committee ended up having to investigate how they got there and whether they were held there in appropriate conditions. So my comments about the detention centre are also relevant in respect of this matter.

This is a bill which hopefully will address all of these issues. It is a bill that is long overdue and it is a bill that will go a long way towards ensuring that Australia has fair work conditions not only because of our new fair works laws but also because we are upholding the very principles that are espoused in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition spoke in support of yesterday. I commend the bill to the House.