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Wednesday, 14 October 2015
Page: 7619


Senator KETTER (Queensland) (13:47): I rise this afternoon to call on the Turnbull government to grant visa amnesty to the staff and former employees of the 7-Eleven franchise group to enable those workers or former workers to come forward so that this terrible blight on Australia's international reputation as a country that provides fairness and dignity to workers can be addressed. I regret to inform the Senate that the minister has recently come out to say that he would not provide a general amnesty but would rather deal with this issue on a case-by-case basis. That is a tragedy, and that will not permit this matter to be fully explored to the extent that it deserves to be. I call on Mr Dutton to reverse his position, and I also call on the Prime Minister to exert some leadership here, to enable this terrible matter to be fully rectified. These workers that I am talking about are students who have been in Australia working on student visas and who have been induced by their employer to be in breach of their visa conditions. They are, in the main, international students who have a lot at stake in relation to this.

This is not the first time that we have heard about groups of people from overseas who have come to Australia thinking that they will be going to work in industries within Australia which provide fair and reasonable treatment and wages and conditions only to find that a number of factors are converging to enable these workers to be exploited. I will talk more about the 7-Eleven workers, but I also need to point out that the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union have spoken to me about some of the concerns they have about the meat industry and the fact that we have foreign workers coming to Australia under 457 visas but more particularly under the 417 visas—the so-called backpacker visas—who are being employed not directly by the abattoirs but as labour hire casuals employed by a third party.

Because they are employed by labour hire companies, they are, in the main, now able to be paid rates of pay which are inferior to the rates which generally apply in those workplaces under the enterprise agreements that that union has negotiated with the relevant employer. It is a device that is being used to ensure that we have a cheap supply of labour coming into this particular industry. Of course, we have the same problem arising here with these meat industry workers, where they are worried about their visa arrangements and they are too scared to make any complaints about their treatment. There have been examples where deductions are coming out of their pay for accommodation. This seems to be a fairly well orchestrated and systematic abuse of people who are coming to Australia.

I raise this issue because I am concerned about Australia's international reputation. We pride ourselves on being a country which has a fair standard of working arrangements and wages. I know that there are many very good employers in Australia that are quite happy to meet the minimum standards that have been set down through the various tribunals over the years. They are happy to do that but, when we find unscrupulous employers seeking to utilise the precarious nature of the employment and the uncertain nature of people's residency in Australia and their visa arrangements, and these factors come together, we have a cocktail which brings about disastrous circumstances for workers coming to this country who really deserve to be treated better.

Returning to the theme of my contribution, I want to ask the government to reconsider its position in respect of a visa amnesty. We are got going to get these workers coming forward unless we provide assurance to them that they will be protected. How are these workers meant to seek assistance if they do not receive the amnesty that I am referring to? The government's refusal to grant the amnesty is preventing these exploited workers from coming forward as many would be in breach of their visa conditions and face the threat of deportation. Migrant workers in breach of their visa work conditions should not face the possibility of deportation where their breach is attributable to exploitation or coercion by the employer or a third party.

This is yet another example of workers being exploited, underpaid and overworked in the current environment and the Abbott-Turnbull government turning a blind eye. This government has remained wilfully blind on this as they have refused to take the necessary action.

Additionally, no further resources so far have been dedicated to the Fair Work Ombudsman, who I think is attempting to address this issue. It is a massive enforcement task for the Fair Work Ombudsman, but they are labouring under a lack of resources in this area. The Fair Work Ombudsman's resources must be increased substantially in order to enable the proper identification of the exploitation of migrant workers. Australia's good name, our history of fair working conditions and for treating people fairly, irrespective of nationality or ethnic origin, has been shattered. We pride ourselves on treating workers with dignity and respect. This saga has left a black mark on our good name.

The Four Corners inquiry into the 7-Eleven stores revealed the horrific conditions that these young students were being subjected to. As a father of four, my heart broke for those workers and the conditions that these young people were being exposed to. What is most concerning is the systematic nature of the exploitation which was occurring.

Subsequent to the Four Corners program, we have seen some further information come to light, and I am aware that the union which I was previously associated with, the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association, is now working together with Maurice Blackburn on a pro bono basis to assist workers who are coming forward. We know a program has been set up; however, we are yet to see the effectiveness of this program under Professor Allan Fels and how it will work out. I note that Professor Fels has expressed concerns about the issue of the visa amnesty. He has indicated that it would be very helpful for this uncertainty to be removed by the government and that this should be dealt with sooner rather than later.

Any workers listening to my speech who have been the victim of these wage scams are well advised to come forward and seek assistance. There are a number of options available to people. One of those would be to access the service which is being provided by the SDA union on a pro bono basis that I indicated. There is a phone number—131 732—which is a hotline to help workers to get the information they need. This hotline will provide people with the assistance that they require in taking their complaints further through the processes that have been set up by the company.

There is also a website which I want to plug—that is, www.24sevenhelpline.com.au—which was set up very quickly after the Four Corners program to highlight the issue and provide assistance. I would encourage workers to come forward and I call on the Prime Minister to change his view.