Adjournment – ending exploitation starts with supermarket giants

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Madam Speaker, I rise to speak about a situation that’s all too common in the horticulture sector.

The supermarket giant demands to pay a lower price, but the farmer’s input costs continue to rise. Reliant on a large seasonal workforce, the farmer turns to a contract labour hire company to hopefully save himself a few dollars.

He suspects the contractor may be breaching immigration, taxation or industrial relations laws, but turns a blind eye for the sake of his family’s livelihood.    

The farmer’s use of a contractor in no way diminishes his responsibility to those workers. Under Australian law he is equally liable and, in most cases, he’s easier for the authorities to pursue.       

Not only has he put his business at risk, but his actions also disadvantage those Australian farmers and contractors who do the right thing.

I’d like to make it clear, Madam Speaker: the majority of farmers and contractors act lawfully. They do a remarkable job producing some of the best produce in the world, often in very challenging conditions.

My speech here today is not about vilifying farmers, labour hire companies or foreign workers. Labour hire contractors and seasonal workers are vital to the horticulture sector.

I am speaking today about the rouge operators and the impact they are having on regional Australia. Make no mistake, sham contracting affects more than just the horticulture sector!

Tourism operators have complained for years that the poor treatment of backpackers damages Australia’s reputation abroad.

Contractors are today employing fewer European backpackers and Australian workers because most know their rights. Instead they are recruiting Asian students. This discrimination has distorted regional labour markets, where unemployment is already high, and fostered a deeply disturbing, yet widely accepted, culture of serious exploitation.

Apathy is rife. Some people even try to justify preying on vulnerable workers from developing countries, by saying: “they’re getting paid more than they would back home” and “the workers are complicit too”. The workers’ unwillingness to speak out only protects the sham contractor and makes it more difficult for authorities to protect others.   

Having so many unlawful non-citizens in Australia raises serious national security issues. Media reports suggest one sham contractor from Papua New Guinea had ties to a Gold Coast Bikie gang.

A Malaysian man, who’d been working illegally on a farm for three months, was deported in December for violating his tourist visa. ABC reports that he was later arrested by Malaysia’s counter-terrorism special branch on suspicion of running a transit cell for the Islamic State terrorist group.

The complicated cross-jurisdiction structure of the offending and the evidential burden make it very difficult for authorities to act.

The Honourable Philip Ruddock announced a review into illegal work in 1999, resulting in a range of measures to improve compliance. A 2010 report by Stephen Howells found it was “the most significant problem facing Australian migration authorities”.

Regional media reports and anecdotal evidence presented to my office suggests the problem has worsened. That’s why Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan and I brought stakeholders together in Brisbane early last year.

One suggestion to prevent sexual exploitation was for working holiday makers to attach payslips to their second year visa applications as proof they’ve completed the 88 days of specified work.

They said passport photo ID should be added to Visa Entitlement Verification Online (VEVO), to make it harder for illegal workers to share the same visa number, and there should be closer monitoring of the people registering to become migration agents or ABN holders.  

While I would welcome the introduction of measures such as these, they would only address very specific aspects of what is a much larger problem.

Stakeholders said creating more hoops for farmers to jump through would only make the problem worse, and called for greater enforcement of existing laws.

I’m pleased my Ministerial colleagues are listening. Under the Coalition, in 2013-14 the number of Illegal Worker Warning Notices issued increased 201 per cent compared to the previous year, and the number of illegal workers located increased 18 per cent. So far this financial year, six employers have been fined a combined total of more than $32,000 for employing illegal workers.

Last week, an employer sanction infringement notice of $15,300 was issued to a labour hire contractor involved in the employment of 37 illegal workers on a farm near Hillston in southern New South Wales.

Last month, eight illegal non-citizens were detained in my home town of Bundaberg:  three Koreans, three Thai, a Malaysian national and an Indian.

The National Party has supported my call for a multi-jurisdictional taskforce.  I’d like to see some of the funds we’ve saved with the closure of immigration detention facilities, spent on an undercover operation to shine the light on this “seedy underbelly” once and for all. 

Putting an end to this scourge is everyone’s responsibility; starting with the people that set the farm gate price! 

The questionable conduct of our major supermarkets has a significant impact on how Australian farmers operate their businesses. Farmers’ share of the selling price has declined from almost 90 per cent in 1900 to less than 10 per cent today!

This fact alone, taken from the Agriculture Competitiveness Green Paper, paints a very clear picture. It’s a picture that is nothing short of heartbreaking! Australian consumers should be disgusted!  



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