MPI – Worker Exploitation

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Mr PITT (Hinkler) (11:31): I am absolutely delighted to speak on this motion moved by the member for Bendigo. I am also incredibly pleased to see her sudden interest in this issue—an issue, I might add, that has been going around in circles for literally decades. As the motion states, complaints have indeed soared, but that is only because awareness of the issue has increased with the coalition’s action. It is this government that is taking action.

Since I was elected in 2013, I have been making a lot of noise about this exact problem. Where has the member for Bendigo been? Where have you been? Labor had six years in government and they did absolutely nothing—actually, that is not quite true. They had an another inquiry. They knew about the problems. There have been countless reports and inquiries to examine this issue over the years and they all say the same thing, but, as I have said time and time again, we do not need another review or inquiry; those resources would be better spent on enforcement action. Individually, agencies like the Fair Work Ombudsman were toothless tigers, but there is now better coordination with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, the Australian Federal Police and the Department of Employment and Training.

With the introduction of Taskforce Cadena in May last year, which is something that I lobbied long and hard for, with the unanimous support of my National Party colleagues, we are finally seeing action. Within a month of operating, the multi-jurisdictional task force was successful with a number of raids, catching 38 illegal workers. Following investigations by Taskforce Cadena, the Fair Work Ombudsman is now able to pursue one Emmanuel Bani, who is accused of underpaying 22 workers from Vanuatu to the tune of $77,649 for fruit- and vegetable-picking jobs in Queensland. Geoffrey and Jane Smith of the Bundaberg branch of the Australian South Sea Islander Association brought the plight of these men to my attention in 2014. I met with some of these workers and heard firsthand about the appalling way that they were treated. I referred the matter, and the departments of employment and immigration intervened to recover the men’s passports and secure them work with a reliable employer. The unskilled seasonal workers program is closely monitored and there are safeguards in place to ensure agents know their obligations and workers know their rights. Agents must be registered. Where the real exploitation occurs is in cases where people have overstayed their visas or are working here illegally and the agents are not properly registered.

But, just as we are making some headway on stamping out rogue labour hire operators and ensuring that foreign workers are being treated fairly, we have proposed changes to the tax-free threshold. In his budget speech, the then Treasurer, Joe Hockey, said that from 1 July working holiday-makers, not seasonal workers, would lose the tax-free threshold of $18,200 and be taxed at 32½ per cent from the first dollar they earn. I wrote to the Treasurer and explained that local fruit and vegetable growers and backpacker hostels had expressed concern that this could be the nail in the coffin of the entire industry. Not only could this lead to a reduction in backpackers coming to Australia to work but it could force more workers and contractors into what I call the ‘seedy underbelly’. One backpacker hostel, which employs about 100 backpackers per week during harvest time, said the proposed changes were ‘casting dark shadows over the potential benefits that backpackers bring to Bundaberg’. Working holiday-makers are not just a travelling workforce; they are a vital component of our tourism industry. You can tell that the member for Bendigo does not understand the needs of the agricultural sector because, in my electorate, the electorate of Hinkler, growers require a large labour force of unskilled workers at short notice; otherwise the crops would sit and rot on the ground. Their whole season’s income would be lost and possible future agreements with their buyers could be put in jeopardy.

We hear the member for Bendigo scaremongering about Australian jobs being taken, but this government has introduced measures to ensure Australian workers are given the first opportunity for employment. With the expansion of the seasonal worker program and the introduction of free trade agreements, employers must demonstrate that they have tested the Australian jobs market first. The member for Bendigo talks about the proactive role of the Australian union movement, and I acknowledge there is an important place in the workplace for the protection of workers’ rights, but I can honestly say that, in my experience, the unions are only interested in representing their members. They refer large numbers of exploited workers through to my office, saying they cannot help them because they are not members of the union. The unions only became interested in protecting these workers’ rights when Four Corners reported on the issue, and I have repeated my concerns over and over again, many times in this place. But this is about human decency, and, regardless of the nationality of the worker, they all have the same rights and obligations while they are working here in Australia.

In Queensland, the Queensland Labor government have recognised that this is an issue and have launched another inquiry. The former federal Labor government launched an inquiry and a Senate inquiry, but it is this government that has launched Taskforce Cadena. We are making headway and we will fix this problem.

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