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Wednesday, 26 June 2013
Page: 7110

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (GortonMinister for Immigration and Citizenship) (12:23): I thank the members for their contribution to the second reading debate on this bill. I remind the House that the Migration Amendment (Temporary Sponsored Visas) Bill 2013 amends the Migration Act to reinforce the importance of overseas skilled workers to the Australian economy while ensuring there are employment and training opportunities for Australian citizens and permanent residents.

This bill will require employers to first look to the Australian labour market before seeking to sponsor workers from overseas by requiring 457 visa sponsors to undertake labour market testing in a manner consistent with Australia's international trade obligations. This will ensure that the subclass 457 visa program is used only to address genuine skills shortages when local labour is unavailable. In my second reading speech I indicated that the time frame for undertaking labour market testing would be within six months; however, after further consideration, I have proposed that four months would be a more appropriate time frame. Six months may be too long a period in a dynamic labour market where conditions can change rapidly.

The bill also builds upon the sponsorship framework introduced in 2009 as a result of the worker protection act. It will enshrine in the Migration Act the kinds of sponsorship obligations to be prescribed in the migration regulations. The bill will also build on the current enforcement regime by expanding the suite of options available to the department to take action against sponsors who are found not to be meeting their obligations. In addition to the civil penalty provisions introduced in 2009 and the administrative sanctions to bar a sponsor or cancel the approval of a person as a sponsor, the minister may now also consider enforceable undertakings. This will be an important tool to encourage sponsor compliance.

The bill further builds on the capacity of the government to monitor and investigate compliance with the temporary work sponsored visa program by expanding inspector powers to the Fair Work Ombudsman. The bill will also deliver a more socially just outcome for visa holders by extending the time that they can seek another sponsor or arrange their affairs to leave Australia from 28 to 90 days.

I turn now to some of the points that were raised in the debate on the bill. Members of the opposition have suggested there is not sufficient evidence to warrant changes to the current arrangements. I would refute that. The 457 scheme is intended to fill job vacancies where there are skills shortages. There is extensive empirical and anecdotal evidence suggesting that the 457 program is not being used for that purpose. Departmental records of 457 breaches underestimate the problem because there are 32 inspectors to investigate, monitor and enforce breaches of 108,810 457 visas. Over the past three years, visits, sanctions and warnings fell by 80, 60 and 40 per cent respectively. Question 7 of the survey published by the Migration Council asked, 'Do you find it difficult to hire workers from the local labour market?' If they asked, they were told 'local' meant Australia. There were three options: 'yes, very', 'yes, somewhat' and 'no'. Fifteen per cent answered no. Fifteen per cent of employers would have had no difficulty in hiring locally but did not.

As at 30 April, there were 108,810 457 visa holders. That represents a 20.4 per cent growth over the previous year. For the whole economy, employment is growing at around one per cent per annum. There was once a close correlation between the job vacancies for the whole economy and the 457 applications. These used to track closely together. Since May 2011, vacancies have declined or remained static while 457 application rates have continued to trend upwards.

Consider the pattern of 457 nominations and job vacancy advertisements in the past 12 months for the most common occupations for 457 visas. Cafe manager nominations are up 189 per cent and ads are down three per cent. For chefs nominations are up 33 per cent and ads are down six per cent. For call centre managers nominations are up 226 per cent and ads are down 14 per cent. For information technology nominations are up seven per cent and ads are down 24 per cent. For accountants nominations are up 21 per cent and ads are down 16 per cent. The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations's own rating for the occupation of accountants suggests there is no shortage. For accommodation and food services there has been a 101 per cent increase in primary applications lodged in this industry in the year to 30 April at a time when vacancies for cooks have been falling. Cook is currently the top sponsored occupation for 457 visas.

Consider these two facts for New South Wales. To 30 March this year, 730 primary applications were lodged for cooks in New South Wales. This is a 99 per cent increase on the same period in the previous program year. Over the same period apprenticeship commencements in commercial cookery were down 12 per cent in New South Wales compared to the same period in the last financial year. Over the past four years in retail aggregate employment has decreased by a bit more than one per cent; but, compared to just one year ago, applications for 457s for retail have increased by 69 per cent.

During debate, again and again the opposition said that labour market testing would present an additional burden upon business in Australia. The government rejects this as most businesses already advertise vacancies to seek to recruit Australian citizens and permanent residents. This bill simply seeks to ensure that those employers who do not do the right thing will first look to recruit locally.

The opposition has also persisted with what I believe is a contemptible debate which suggests that the government is seeking to demonise foreign workers. Far from the government endangering social cohesion, the opposition has fuelled a debate based on false notions. The government has always said and will continue to say that the subclass 457 program is a valuable supplement to the domestic labour pool when used appropriately. For the opposition to generate ill will in this way is, quite frankly, absurd and I take personal offence at it. The opposition has also suggested that the absence of the regulatory impact statement was an issue notwithstanding the fact that the majority of elements in this bill did not require a regulatory impact statement, as advised by the Office of Best Practice Regulation. While I agree that an impact statement is desirable, in this case the impact upon business because of the labour market testing element, which is the only element requiring an RAS, will be minor while the outcome for Australians seeking employment and for visa holders requiring protections will be improved.

The opposition said there is insufficient consultation. I have consulted with my ministerial colleagues, the Ministerial Advisory Council on Skilled Migration, and my department has consulted with relevant Commonwealth agencies throughout the development of this bill. Consultations will be ongoing as the measures in this bill are implemented. The opposition has said that the existing legislative framework provides sufficient options to take action against sponsors who do the wrong thing. By tightening the sponsoring obligations and by enhancing the penalty framework by including enforceable undertakings, the integrity of the subclass 457 will be improved. This can only benefit Australians searching for work and protect vulnerable visa holders from unscrupulous employers.

I refer to the member for Lyne, who I have always felt has engaged on matters genuinely. I respectfully disagree, however, with his remarks that it is all about resources and enforcing the current provisions. The advice I have received is that we cannot enforce some of the provisions, that the undertakings are not enforceable. Insofar as the resources are concerned, as I have indicated, we have announced a very significant increase by the use of the Fair Work inspectorate officers.

I also refer specifically to the contribution from the member for Canning. I found that inflammatory and insulting insofar as he attempts to attack my motives, particularly in relation to believing that in any way I would act in a manner that was discriminatory against anybody of a particular race. I found it highly offensive. I also found it somewhat odd because he was chair of a parliamentary inquiry that recommended in 2007 that there be a trial for labour market testing when he was still a chair and when the Howard government was still in government. He did suggest only a trial and he did focus on a limited number of occupations, but in fact on that occasion there were 58,000 visa applicants. Yet, as someone who got up only a few days ago to challenge the motives and the cogency of our argument, he himself was chair of a committee that had recommended a trial for labour market testing.

Finally, I would like to thank all of those who I have not referred to who have contributed. This is a very important debate in this place. I understand why there would be different views but I think that these improvements are important. The bill acknowledges the benefits of the temporary sponsored skilled migration program while recalibrating the legislative settings to ensure that the intent of the program—namely to temporarily fill genuine skilled vacancies—is achieved in practice. I commend the bill to the House.

The SPEAKER: The question is that the amendment be agreed to.