Comments on Migration and Other Legislation Amendment (Enhanced Integrity) Bill 2017


February 27, 2018

Just as the member for Bruce pointed out, it’s not good enough. It’s always the case that something falls short with this government, in every area, and this is another example of that—just not good enough. While we will support the Migration and Other Legislation Amendment (Enhanced Integrity) Bill 2017 in the House, because we want to ensure vulnerable overseas workers are appropriately protected from unscrupulous employers, and it’s a step in the right direction, there’s still a long way to go to genuinely protect vulnerable workers, including migrant workers, as well as ensuring that Australians and locals get the first shot at local jobs.

There’s been a lot of debate in the House around immigration and migration matters over the last couple of weeks. We had before us another migration legislation bill on which I spoke and raised concerns around the immigration policy under this government and particularly that it is being securitised under the new Department of Home Affairs. That really is a failure to understand that this policy area is one of a facilitation of new migrants coming to our country who contribute economically, socially and culturally, whereas security is only one aspect of that and not the entirety of it.

We have heard from the member for Warringah that he believes the skilled migrant intake should be halved. The member for Warringah is wrong when he suggests these cuts to the intake of migrants. These are people who work, pay taxes and contribute to our society and of course this would have a negative impact on our economic growth. But then you have the Treasurer, who was just disingenuous in his attack on the member for Warringah. It’s actually his government, the Abbott-Turnbull government, which has cut funding for infrastructure—roads and transport—and funding to schools and hospitals. All of those are feeling enormous strain, particularly in the capital cities of Melbourne and Sydney because, as we know, the majority of our migrant intake goes to those two cities. So, instead of taking pot shots at each other with simplistic arguments over cutting migration, what about some creative policies? What about investing in infrastructure, just to start with? What about some incentives for migrants to settle in other capital cities or in regional centres? What about support for advanced manufacturing, research and development, IT and biotech jobs? As Labor leader Bill Shorten has pointed out, it’s important to tighten the visa restrictions on temporary migrant visa holders who, as we know, are adding further pressure to cities like Melbourne and Sydney. So I would call on the government to do its job so Australia can continue to benefit economically from skilled migration.

We’re talking about specifically migrant workers. As we know, and as we have heard, they are absolutely vital to the future of Australia’s economy. You would be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker Buchholz, that in the agricultural industry, for example, getting migrants and migrant workers to rural areas helps reduce labour shortages, particularly during seasonal harvesting peaks. It counteracts the trend of population movement away from the bush to the capital cities. That’s a good thing. Immigrants, including refugees and these migrant workers, sometimes go on to become permanent residents and Australian citizens and go on to become entrepreneurs themselves. They open up their own businesses. This has been proven. According to the research paper titled New immigrants improving productivity in Australian agriculture, skilled immigrants in the agricultural sector are much more likely to set up their own business, at around 15 per cent, than the Australian average rate of entrepreneurship at 10 per cent. Immigrant farmers are also filling the growing intergenerational gap in farm succession and bringing with them new technologies and innovations to Australian farming, as well as introducing many new vegetables that expand Australia’s food horizons.

For all the opportunities, however, it is a fact that some of the most exploited workers in Australia are these migrant workers. Migration status, even for those with the right to work in Australia, is often used as leverage to exploit those workers. This is evident from many different inquiries. The Victorian state government’s 2016 inquiry into the labour hire industry and insecure work highlighted some of these cases of exploitation. It’s no secret then that within Australia there are employers who are deliberately and systematically denying Australian and migrant workers their rights, freedoms and a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. This includes gross underpayment of wages, doctoring pay records to conceal unlawful conduct, physical intimidation and subjecting workers to threats of deportation. Most decent employers will not do this. There are some employers, however, that prefer temporary grant workers because they are more compliant and less likely to complain or be unionised. Employers who deliberately and systematically deny workers their rights are not only denying working people a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work; they are undercutting the employers who want to do the right thing and who are doing the right thing. They undermine the integrity of the workplace relations system, they distort the labour market and they undermine the principles of fair competition that should be the foundations of a successful economy.

We know that this bill will enable the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to collect tax file numbers, which will help streamline more targeted and effective compliance activities. The amendment gives effect to the recommendations of the Robust new foundations: a streamlined, transparent and responsive system for the 457 programmereport,which recommended that the department disclose greater information on its sanctions actions and communicate this directly to all sponsors and the migration advice profession, as well as placing information on its website.

Currently, the department is only able to release limited information to the public regarding breaches of sponsorship obligations. The department is unable to advise informants of the outcome of their complaint. So these changes, as minor as they are, will mean the department will be able to check that bosses are paying their workers correctly and that visa holders are complying with the conditions of the visa, including that they are working in an appropriate position with the one employer. Labor acknowledges that there are currently difficulties verifying that sponsors are paying visa holders correctly or checking if a visa holder is working for more than one employer. So collecting tax file numbers will assist the department to undertake more streamlined, targeted and effective compliance activities. It will also ensure that the department can publicly name businesses that breach their sponsorship obligations. This will give prospective staff the opportunity to be informed about who they are signing up to work for.

There’s also the added point that this will ensure some certainty around merit review rights for visas that require an approved nomination and that the relevant legislation achieves the government’s policy intention. The amendment ensures that it is clear that the merits review is available at the appropriate point in the visa application process—namely, when a visa is refused—and only in circumstances where there is either an approved nomination or a decision affecting whether there is an approved nomination. This reflects the original policy intention. Merit reviews continue to be available for nomination and visa decisions, albeit only after refusal. However, the bill does not change or remove a visa applicant’s rights to judicial review, which is the right to challenge the legal validity of a decision in a court.

Despite all this, we are aware on our side of the House—given the complexity of the Migration Act, which is such a complex piece of legislation—that any amendments always warrant further consultation and investigation. That’s the important basis of the reasoning, if you like, to refer to bill to a Senate inquiry for further scrutiny. Frankly, another reason is to give stakeholders the opportunity to have their say about the practical effects and the legal implications of this bill. Another reason for the referral of the bill to the Senate is to try to avoid what happened when the Turnbull government’s changes to the skilled migration system sent waves of uncertainty through the business, innovation and education sectors. Stakeholders at the time had been very vocal in raising their concerns about the unintended consequences of the Turnbull government’s recent changes to skilled migration.

This is why it’s so disappointing, yet not surprising, that this Abbott-Turnbull government has to be dragged kicking and screaming to the table to bring forward any measures to address exploitation of vulnerable workers. As the previous speaker noted, it’s just not a priority for them. True to form, the Turnbull government botched their changes to temporary skilled migration, proving they can’t be trusted with Australian jobs.

Under this government, too many local workers are being left at the back of the queue for local jobs. Local workers are missing out on job opportunities. Employers can hire migrant workers in areas where Australians are willing and able to work. That is because there is currently no proper mechanism for ensuring there is a skill shortage for the jobs in which employers hire migrant workers. For example, nursing, teaching and engineering are all on the Short-term Skilled Occupation List. All are occupations where Australians are struggling to enter the labour market.

Under the current government, 457 visas are being manipulated to bring in cheap labour. Workers have been flown in on 457 visas under this government for jobs as cooks, chef, nurses, IT support and administration staff, mechanics, fitters, welders, carpenters, joiners, hairdressers, teachers, early childhood educators, draftspersons, electricians and bricklayers. Are the government seriously telling us that these jobs can’t be filled locally? Is that what they’re asking us to believe? We’re very concerned that Australians are missing out on these jobs. We should be employing local workers and investing in apprenticeships and training to give young kids the chance at these quality jobs.

However, let’s be clear: as I’ve said earlier, we are not against migrant workers. We’ve already highlighted the important role they can and do play in the agricultural industry, for example. We’ve highlighted how they have been exploited. But the figures show that only about 3.5 per cent of 457 visas are for the mining industry, and less than two per cent are for the agricultural industry. More than 85 per cent of 457 visas are used to fly in workers to fill jobs in capital cities. While the Minister for Home Affairs is lamenting the strain on our capital cities infrastructure and the cities being ‘overcrowded’, and the member for Warringah talks about cutting the intake of migrant numbers by half, the fact is that the minister’s own department is contributing to that strain and making it harder for local workers to find jobs. The Minister for Home Affairs is seeking to reheat the old migration numbers debate by focusing on fear mongering and the securitisation of Australia’s immigration policy.

The real issue is that the Liberals are ignoring the hundreds of thousands of workers granted 457 visas for jobs that local workers could be doing. We believe that 457 visas should only be used to bring in workers with highly specialised skills for jobs which businesses cannot find local workers to do. It’s a simple proposition. But 457 visas are currently being rorted to import cheap labour from overseas, instead of training and employing local workers.

Labor will crack down on these rorts to stop 457 visas being abused and ensure local workers are employed first. We’re the only party in this place that has a plan to put local workers first and ensure businesses are training and employing local workers. We will always put local workers first. We will ensure that temporary work visas are filling genuine skill shortages. We will establish an independent authority to advise government on current skill shortages and future skill needs. We will address skill shortages with training that will lead to real jobs for local workers. We will strengthen penalties for employers who abuse the system and exploit their workers. We will not waive labour-market testing requirements in new free trade agreements. We will introduce a new science, high-tech and research visa allowing for continued access to the best specialists to collaborate with their Australian counterparts.

Labor has always been the party to stand up for middle- and working-class Australians. We took this policy to the last election. In government in 2013, Labor reintroduced labour-market testing requirements which had been removed by the Liberals in 2001. It is clear that further steps are needed to end the rorts and ensure local workers are given a first opportunity at jobs. That is why we will support this bill in the House. We will consider any recommendations of the Senate inquiry before forming our final position in the Senate.