Adjournment – Taskforce Cadena
Mr PITT (Hinkler) (12:58): Last month the coalition government committed to establish a multi-agency task force to target visa fraud and employers that exploit foreign workers. It is something I have been calling for since May last year, and I would like to thank Assistant Minister Cash, Minister Keenan, Minister Dutton and Minister Abetz for listening to their backbench and giving this matter the attention that it deserves. I would also like to thank their staff.
This is also a significant win for the Nationals. At Federal Council in August, the Nationals voted unanimously to seek a multijurisdictional taskforce. Exploitation of foreign workers is something which predominantly impacts regional farming electorates held by Nationals MPs. Allegations and complaints, and we have all received them, range from the underpayment and sexual exploitation of workers to tax evasion, visa breaches, racial discrimination, intimidation of farmers and overcrowding in private residential dwellings.
Taskforce Cadena will be led by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and the Fair Work Ombudsman. They will work with the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Securities and Investment Commission, the Australian Taxation Office and various state and territory agencies to ensure incidents of exploitation and visa fraud are appropriately investigated.
Better coordination and intelligence sharing between agencies in the various levels of government will ensure seasonal workers are protected from unscrupulous employers. The majority of businesses do the right thing. This issue is not confined to the horticulture sector or the Bundaberg region. That is why I am pleased that Taskforce Cadena will operate nationwide and across a range of industries. Organised criminal networks and people seeking to profit by exploiting both illegal and legitimate workers should be under no illusion: Taskforce Cadena is targeting you. Not only do their actions disadvantage those employers who do do the right thing, but they are also thumbing their noses at the hardworking Australian taxpayer.
Queensland Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan and I hosted a stakeholder forum in Brisbane last year with farmers, contractors, migrant support organisations and state and local government representatives. The very clear message that we received from that meeting was that new legislation and further inquiries are not the answer. Stakeholders wanted real action. They said there needed to be greater enforcement of existing laws and greater cooperation between the many relevant agencies across all three levels of government. Taskforce Cadena will do just that. I will be asking the relevant ministers to provide a central contact point for people to lodge complaints with the task force.
At present, the division of which agency is responsible for what is about as clear as mud. For example, complaints about the process for getting a second year on a 417 visa is the responsibility of the Department of Employment. Most people would think that visa extensions were a matter for the department of immigration, but apparently not. I would like to see a ‘know your rights and responsibilities’ educational campaign that provides foreign visa holders with a wallet sized card that lists what agency to call over which matter. That might also extend to a smartphone app. Until then, allegations and tip-offs can be emailed to email@example.com.
Immigration and Border Protection has significantly enhanced its investigative abilities in recent months in preparation for the establishment of the Australian Border Force on 1 July. Just last week, about 120 officers from Immigration and Border Protection as well as Fair Work and state and territory police participated in Operation Cloudburst. The operation detected 38 illegal workers in homes and work sites across 11 businesses in Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.
The results in such a short period of time demonstrate just how widespread the problem is and why I have been calling for a multi-jurisdictional task force. By all accounts, unscrupulous labour hire contractors are highly organised and difficult to trace, so I congratulate the officers involved in the crackdown for nabbing two labour hire racket operators. The intelligence that officers gathered as part of Operation Cloudburst will certainly be of use to Taskforce Cadena.
This is an issue which has been around for at least 15 years. It was first raised by Philip Ruddock in 1999. It has been the subject of numerous inquiries, numerous Senate reports and various other activities within government. Taskforce Cadena takes real action. This government is getting on with the job of targeting unscrupulous labour hire contracting firms, and they should be under absolutely no illusion that this task force is targeting them. It will make them accountable and it will provide a level playing field for all Australian businesses without exploiting workers who really have no other option.