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Tuesday, 24 November 2015
Page: 8818


Senator KIM CARR (Victoria) (17:44): I fully acknowledge that the government is doing the right thing in regard to that particular matter. That is not the issue. The opposition is supporting that aspect of the bill. The concern I have is that there have been too many examples now where there have been groups of people on visas other than 457s subject to exactly the same problem.

For instance, take the recent case where the Australian Federal Police have laid charges against three individuals relating to alleged fraud in the vocational educational system. The example that has been brought to our attention is of Australia Post. This is a government agency employing subcontractors—in this case, St Stephen Institute and Symbiosis, two colleges that were registered here. In fact, I think one of them was just recently given a seven-year extension on their registration without any site visit. Yet this college has been employing people to work for Australia Post and treating them very badly, to the point where fraud charges—which we know have a very high threshold for criminal proceedings—have been laid by the Federal Police against those colleges. There is another one, TK Melbourne Education and Training, which, as I understand it, has also been the subject of these actions by the Federal Police.

These examples are not historic. They are very much happening now. They are examples of people with visas other than in the 457 class who have been mistreated by employers. The 7-Eleven example has now become infamous across this country, and of course there are many others. My attention has been drawn to a raid that I understand Border Force officers undertook just last Wednesday at a house in or near Brisbane. According to reports that I have seen, the house contained up to 30 people from Taiwan who were operating what has been described as a 'boiler room'—that is, a high-pressure sales call centre. The boiler room was discovered when residents in the house tried to prevent the real estate agent from entering the facilities. Workers in this call centre probably could not be called employees because, as described, they were effectively slaves.

This is happening here and now, and this parliament has an obligation to do something about it. We all know that 'slavery' is a pretty ugly word, and I am sure it shocks many Australians for us to use it. But that is the reality of what is occurring. As I understand it, the Border Force raid saw four persons expected to be deported for violating their 417 visa conditions. There needs to be attention paid to prosecuting employers who misuse these provisions.

I think it is reasonable to assume that these circumstances are just the tip of the iceberg. It demonstrates why it is necessary to broaden the scope of this bill. We can commend the government for taking action on 457 visas, in terms of payment for results. I acknowledge that that is a step forward, but it is nowhere near as good as we could get by simply acknowledging that there is a range of other visas where similar practices are occurring. In particular, I think the actions with regard to the backpacker visas have seen widespread abuse of those workers. The student visa provisions have been widely acknowledged to have been grossly abused by unscrupulous employers. That is why I am suggesting there needs to be action taken, consistent with the provisions that we are proposing, to extend protections to students and working holiday visa holders so that they can be treated properly.

It is no good saying, 'Take it up to Fair Work Australia.' That makes an assumption about the power relationships, and that people have standing and union protection, because it is often the case that unions play a vital role. If you are a student and you are placed in these circumstances, you are put at a complete disadvantage if you want to stay here. I did not come down in the last shower—I know that people do things that they should not do in terms of breaching their visas, but there have to be measures put in place so that people can come forward. That is why I argued in the 7-Eleven case that there needed to be an amnesty to allow us to get to the bottom of what was a systemic rort. The way this company was operating—their business case depended on it—suggested to me a fundamental corruption of the system which required quite strong and deliberative action by this parliament.

That is why I am urging the chamber to examine these matters. I would ask you, Minister: when you say that these questions can be taken up before Fair Work Australia, what history do we have of that being a successful course of action for students or backpackers who are placed in this situation? How often does that occur and what are the results? I am sure the department has some statistical evidence. Given the level of abuse that the department knows is going on, what percentage of those people end up before Fair Work Australia and how long does it take to get your case heard?