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Tuesday, 27 February 2018
Page: 2124


Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (18:37): There are some basic principles that most people would probably think apply in Australia, and they certainly should apply, but I think people would be shocked to find out they don't. One basic principle that I think should be inarguable is that, when the Fair Work Act sets down a legal set of minimum wages, conditions and protections that apply to people who work in this country, and when those wages, conditions and protections are then sometimes increased through enterprise agreements or through other deals, they should apply to everyone, regardless of where they've come from. But that is not the case in Australian labour law.

The reason it's not the case in Australian labour law is that over many, many years we've steadily carved out exceptions to it. We've steadily carved out whole groups of people who don't get the basic protections that you would think everyone is entitled to. The reason that they don't get those protections and can therefore be paid less than the going rate, less than someone working next to them on a particular project, is basically that they come from another country and our immigration laws, in many cases, override and trump our labour laws, because we've created certain classes of visa that basically allow people to bypass the Fair Work Act and agreements that are in place in this country. For other laws that apply and might give you protections, like the ability to go and work in a union and negotiate your collective agreement, an unscrupulous employer or a big corporation can basically contract out of that in Australia, just by using certain classes of visas.

What we've found is that in some places it's been particularly prevalent—in the offshore oil and gas sector, for example. The Greens have a very strong position around the use of fossil fuels, but, as long as they are there, the people who were working there should at least have the same wages and conditions as people on the mainland, for example. We have laws in place that allow for different conditions to be applied there, provided you've come in and worked on a certain class of visa. We find that now happening regularly on the mainland as well. For all the talk that we have in this country about how we don't want Third World wages and conditions and we don't want sweatshops, what goes unremarked is that we are actually recreating those very conditions in pockets of our own country. This leads to massive exploitation.

We need to lay the groundwork very clearly here. This is not about xenophobia, and nor should it ever be. What we've found is that the people who come here were living in poverty in their country. They have been given an opportunity to come and earn a good wage for them and their families. When they are brought here on these visas, they often get treated in the most horrible of ways. It's not about getting a better life for them; it's about the employer making as much money as they possibly can. So they get brought in. They often get forced to sleep in dormitories and they often get their wages sequestered by their employer. When they twig that in many instances they're getting paid less than someone who is working under a collective agreement, they join a union—and it has often been the unions who have uncovered the exploitation of overseas workers on these visas—and the employer says, 'You can speak up if you want, but if you do you're on the next plane out of here.' So those people coming here and working under those visas are getting exploited. It also serves to help drive down local wages and conditions because employers say, 'If I can get someone in on a visa to do it more cheaply, because that's legitimate and lawful, why should I bother paying you the wage of a higher enterprise agreement?' So it exploits the overseas workers and it exploits local workers.

People know that this is going on and know that it happened under Labor and Liberal, which is why they've been speaking up so much about it and why it has caused so much consternation. People are asking for the basic principle to apply that, no matter where you come from, you get paid the same wages, and that we use visas to fill any genuine skill shortages but we don't use them to undermine local wages and conditions. They're pretty basic principles that people have been asking for.

So we find both Labor and Liberal governments who have been perpetuating this scheme being dragged kicking and screaming to do something. When they get dragged kicking and screaming to do it, it's more important for them to be seen to be doing something rather than actually be doing something. So we had, for example, the farce of a big focus on 457 visas, which this bill continues to talk about, while all the other classes of visa go completely unregulated. I don't know if it still exists, but there used to be a game that I would sometimes play at the arcade called Whac-A-Mole. A little mole pops up and you try to whack it. Every time one pops up, another one pops up somewhere else. It's a never-ending game.

This bill and all the rhetoric that has come from this government and from the opposition have focused on 457 visas. That's what this bill is largely about. They forget to tell you that not that long ago the parliament was debating the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. In that agreement is an appendix that says that, for certain classes of workers and certain categories of people, you don't have to use a 457—and we're talking about 400 visas, for example, and other categories of visas. It said: 'Forget about all the restrictions that might be in this legislation about 457s, we're going to grant you a complete exemption.' As a result, under the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement all a Chinese company needs to do is say that they've got someone employed in Australia under a contract, which is anyone, and they get a free pass from all the labour market testing rules and they don't have to advertise locally. And, when there are certain categories of people—contractual service providers—who are also mentioned in the appendix to that agreement, you get a free pass from all those rules as well, including this bill, which will do nothing to deal with that. As a result, in the free trade agreement that Labor and Liberal agreed to, for all their rhetoric about protecting local wages and conditions, there are loopholes that trump everything in domestic legislation and allow plane loads of exploited overseas workers to come through and, in the process, they are exploited and local wages and conditions are driven down.

What we have seen in Victoria is that many of the people who are maintaining our state electricity system have been brought here without advertising for local electricians having been done here first. They have been brought here because it is all being done in connection with an overseas corporation. The unions are the ones that have gone in and found that out. In many instances, there and elsewhere, they have found that the employer is actually doing everything lawfully because the Labor-Liberal China free trade agreement gave them this blanket exemption from labour market testing so they don't have to advertise locally.

What I'm really worried about is that what we are getting from Labor and Liberal at the moment is the xenophobia and the 'Australia first' rhetoric but without the protections. What I would like to see is the protections without the xenophobia. I would like us to actually take some steps to change our laws to ensure basic principles like saying, 'Advertise locally first and if you can't find someone locally go and advertise overseas.' No problem. Or there might be a genuine skills reason why you might want someone from overseas. I talk to medical researchers in my electorate all the time who love the global nature of the workplace. There will be many instances where it is worthwhile exploring global connections, but we shouldn't use visa categories as a way of failing to invest in proper training in this country.

We've completely gutted TAFE. And, when Labor and Liberal alike say they'll allow an unregulated and unlimited number of people to come in without even having to advertise locally first, we wonder why people don't want to invest in skills in this country. Why would you? If you are an employer you would be a mug to invest in skills in this country if Labor and Liberal have given you a blank cheque to go and get someone from somewhere else and you don't have to invest locally. So we have got a lot of catching up to do.

We have just seen a mining boom pass us by without having anything to show for it except a hangover in Western Australia where the economy is struggling and nothing is left in the kitty. Meanwhile Norway, which has oil riches, had the smarts to put some of its money away into a sovereign wealth fund and now has the biggest sovereign wealth fund in the world. And here, because the mining companies were so successful in running their campaign against the mining tax—they wrote themselves out of having to pay their fair share—we now find ourselves saying that, if it's a Labor government, maybe we have to cut single-parent payments or, if it's a Liberal government, maybe we have to put fees up for people to go and see the doctor. We have let this massive opportunity pass us by. We failed to take some of that money we could've taken from the mining boom and invest in training locally. So we have not only lost a lot of money with 83 per cent of profits from that mining boom going overseas; we have lost a lot of opportunities to skill up our population as well. And now we're playing catch-up.

This bill is worth being supported, because does at least something, but it only does something with respect to a very small proportion of the problem. It is going to allow all the other moles to keep popping up. It is going to allow all the other classes of visas to keep going and causing the problems that they have caused. The labour market testing legislation that we've got in this country, to which the government has been dragged kicking and screaming, applies to a very narrow section of the people who are coming in.

As a result, until we fix it and start saying we should not keep blindly signing up to free trade deals if they are not in our country's interest—and I don't know about the member for Kennedy's party, but certainly the Greens have been the only ones, at least in the Senate, to consistently vote against these free trade deals when they come in. Until we start saying we can't just keep signing up to free trade deals because big corporations want us to because it allows them to make a lot more money at the expense of people, and until we put things like the TPP on the backburner and say that having what is essentially a global corporate blueprint for the diminution of wages is not a good thing and that allowing companies to sue governments because governments might have the temerity to act in the public interest is not a good thing—until we have the common sense to distance ourselves from these free trade agreements that bind governments' hands and make it much more difficult to legislate for the protection of the population, and until we start getting back to basics and saying, 'Look, the most important thing isn't to have the appearance of doing something and isn't to beat your chest with "Australia first" rhetoric but to actually work out what the problem is and how we can support our young people'—we are going to continue to be in strife.

We now have a situation where the Treasurer comes in here and trumpets the jobs numbers and says the government is doing a wonderful job.

Mr Howarth: Hear, hear!

Mr BANDT: I hear, 'Hear, hear' from the backbench. Let me tell you this: close to one in three young people in this country either has no work or doesn't have enough work—one in three. The number is going up since the GFC. Usually, whenever we have economic downturns, it takes only a couple of years for the situation to right itself, and it hasn't for young people in this country. It is getting worse. When one in three young people either has no work or doesn't have enough, and it's been like that persistently under your watch, we are in strife. Until you find a way of fixing that and start saying, 'Maybe this whole neoliberal experiment hasn't worked out that well at all, and maybe this dog-eat-dog world is not what people in Australia want,' you are going to keep going down in the polls, and the parties that have the guts to stand up to big business on behalf of the community are the ones that are going to succeed.