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Wednesday, 14 October 2015
Page: 7674

Senator LINES (Western Australia) (17:01): I present an interim report of the Education and Employment References Committee on Australia’s temporary work visa programs together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator LINES: I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I have to say that in my short time here this has been quite an appalling committee to sit on. In evidence we have heard of workers, who in many instances are guests in our country, who have been treated absolutely appallingly. We have looked at many sections of the Australian labour market, whether it is agriculture, manufacturing, or retail, and we have seen various classes of visa workers be treated appallingly.

I want to start with those young people on 417 visas who come to our country as guests for what is termed in their visa as part of the cultural exchange. They are being exploited across sections of our labour market. We have heard some horrible tales and some shocking tales. We heard, for example, of workers at Baiada Poultry working almost 24 hours straight. We heard also of the appalling practices of the labour hire companies, which are contracted to Baiada to provide the labour, who have nothing more than a mobile phone. The young worker texts the mobile phone for work, that work is arranged and they are picked up by a van in the local town and taken to the factory.

What the inquiry has shown is that with many of these young backpackers there is definitely a business model that is being used, particularly by some very unscrupulous labour hire companies, where they recruit in the home country. We met a lot of young Korean workers recruited in their home country who were brought to Australia and taken to some remote country town, put up in absolutely appalling accommodation where there are maybe six or eight of them double- and triple-bunking in a house. They are charged an exorbitant rate of rent per week for that house. The house is usually in a very derelict condition and does not have proper facilities. In fact, councils have come in in some cases and put work orders on those houses or said that they are not fit for people to live in. On top of that, they then get picked up, usually in some kind of white minivan, and transported to the workplace.

Working in these chicken factories is fast work, it is processing work and it is dangerous work. I am very concerned that if we do not put a stop to these practices young workers, guests in our country, are going to be severely injured or even killed at work. That is the type of blatant disregard which is shown to these young workers.

We heard story after story. In one of the hearings we heard workers—again this was Baiada Poultry—who were on a training scheme for weeks on end and were never paid. They were told they had to finish that training scheme and then they would get paid work. We also saw evidence of at least two sets of books where, if you looked at one set of records, it would look as if they were being paid and paid appropriately; but, actually, when you looked at the cash in hand that they got, you could see they were being paid as little as $10 an hour. And this was a straight $10—in the middle of the night, in the middle of the day, it did not seem to matter. All of the industrial conditions that apply at Baiada chicken were completely disregarded for a significant part of the workplace. This is a significant part of the Baiada workplace where backpacker visas were being exploited.

Before the hearing in Adelaide, the National Union of Workers gave me the opportunity to meet with a whole group of young backpackers. Again these were Korean backpackers. There were probably 30 young backpackers in the room and through interpreters every single one of those workers told me where they were working and what kind of hourly rate they were receiving. It did not matter if they were working in hospitality, whether they were cleaning, whether they were picking tomatoes or whether they were working at Baiada; every single one of those workers was being exploited. That is something that none of us in this place should accept. Certainly everybody on the committee has been appalled at the treatment of these workers.

What disappoints me is that the government will not, at this point in time, give an amnesty to some of those workers whose visas will run out. They have been underpaid and they have to leave the country. We really do need to use whatever tools we have available to stamp this practice out—whether it is making sure that labour hire companies are much more accountable or whether it is accepting that, where workers are ripped off to this extent and their visas have expired, we will create an amnesty. This should not be done on a case-by-case basis, because that would not encourage workers to come forward. It should be a general amnesty. It can be policed so that it is not abused, but we need to be able to absolutely crack down on the exploitation that is going on right across the labour market with a range of visas.

The most recent example is the 7-Eleven case, which has been the subject of a lot of media. The workers in this case were predominantly Indian and Pakistani students who came to Australia—some were recruited in their home countries—and worked in 7-Eleven. Most Australians would not believe that this kind of shocking exploitation of workers would happen in this country. We heard evidence in Melbourne of an adult worker who was being paid as little as $6.50 an hour, when the going rate is probably around $21 an hour. That is disgraceful. This matter is under investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman and it is also under investigation through an independent committee that the 7-Eleven company has set up. We saw in the media recently that a few days after the chief executive and other officials appeared before the Senate inquiry in Melbourne they resigned. So I do not have any faith in 7-Eleven's ability to carry out that independent inquiry and to make sure that every, single worker who is owed money by 7-Eleven—and every, single worker who works at 7-Eleven is owed money—will get their due entitlements. We were given a commitment by the CEO but two days later he resigned, so I do not have faith that that is what is going to transpire.

The workers in the 7-Eleven case are predominantly international students. For some of them it is time to go back to their home countries, and they need to be given amnesty so that we can properly get to the bottom of this exploitation. Otherwise I fear that Australia will start to get the sort of reputation we had when international students were being ripped off by some educational institutions in this country. That is not the sort of reputation we want to have. We are a country that prides itself on a fair go. We are a country which has a strong award and enterprise bargaining system, and yet we have matter after matter where workers are being ripped off.

The other area where we saw exploitation was with holders of 457 visas, where there is regulation. This tells us that even in areas where we have better regulation, it is not good enough. We heard evidence in Sydney of a case where 457 visa workers were brought in and the local workers were made redundant or their contracts were not renewed. The local workers were asked to train up the new 457 workers and then their jobs disappeared, only to be taken by the 457 visa workers. In that instance it is very clear to me that there will be some kind of underpayment going on. If we are going to have workers in our country on a limited visa, they need to be treated respectfully and we need to have proper mechanisms in place through unions, the Fair Work Ombudsman and other places to ensure that workers are paid what they are entitled to. Otherwise we will be seen as a country that exploits overseas workers.

The inquiry is continuing; this is an interim report. We have more work to do. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.