Second reading – Modern Slavery Bill 2018

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Mr PITT: I rise to speak on the Modern Slavery Bill 2018 and, like many of the speakers before me, I want to speak about actions that we need to take and have taken in our own backyard. As many of the people in this House know, including my good colleague the member for Cowper, who has been along for the fight, we have fought constantly for the last five years to crack down on exploitation, particularly of foreign workers, visa holders and those who are receiving cash payments in this country.

In our regional areas, that is predominantly within the agricultural sector. Inside the agricultural sector, it is mainly in horticulture. The reasons for it are very simple. The reason those who are out there, mostly labour hire contractors, wish to take the risk is money. They can make an awful lot of money if they do not pay their employees. Can I say from the outset that the overwhelming majority of our local growers and Australian producers are doing the right thing. They are doing the right thing. Unfortunately, they get bunched in with the bad seeds who are out there not doing the right thing with regard to employees or with regard to the people who they pay to work on their farms, to pick their produce and to keep their businesses operational. For me personally, this has been a long, long battle. We have been incredibly successful in working with the government over recent years to deliver things which crack down on this exploitation and which make a real difference.

In the horticulture sector, the way they make their money through the exploitation of workers is quite simple. In the horticulture sector, if you turn out 2,000 cartons a day and your margin can improve by $2 a box, that is $4,000 seven days a week. There’s $28,000 straight up. You’re automatically more competitive than your next-door neighbour who’s doing the right thing. It is not just about the exploitation of workers but it is also about the level playing field for our agricultural producers. Without them, we cannot feed the world and we cannot feed our own people. I want to point out the duopoly once again. The purchasing practices of Coles and Woolworths allow this to happen, because they take the cheaper price, and that sets the platform. If you cannot compete, you don’t sell your product and—it’s pretty straightforward—you go broke, you lose your house and you lose your farm. I can understand that there are those out there who are willing to take the risk, because for them it’s about survival. We need to make sure that there is balance. We need to make sure that everyone in this country is paid appropriately and that they are not exploited.

I’ll diverge slightly, because I note with interest the most recent ACCC report into electricity, in terms of pricing, and the recommendation for divestiture. I think that is something which should be supported not just in the electricity sector but right across the board. If you have a market monopoly power and you are using that power to the detriment of your suppliers, the government should crack down on you. It has been the case with Coles and Woolworths on many occasions that they have acted inappropriately and have supported the continuation of this type of exploitation. I think that is just wrong.

One of the points I wanted to show is the case of one Emmanuel Bani. This is a case that has been settled and is in the public domain. Mr Bani employed 22 individuals from Vanuatu in the period 21 July 2014 to 11 September 2014. Mr Bani left those individuals on the side of the road with no passports, with no money and with no payment for that entire period. In fact, on arrival at Helidon, they were dropped off without food, without cash and with nothing to do for three days until he showed up later on. As I’ve said, this is all a matter of the public record. It was done at considerable expense by Maroochy Sunshine over that period. Every single one of them was a citizen and resident of Vanuatu.

One of the reasons I raise this case is the fact that these gentlemen, and of course their support network through Jeff Smith and a South Sea Islander association in Bundaberg, ended up in my office. We met with these gentlemen. They were left with absolutely nothing. It was a horrible experience for them. I am ashamed of our country that this happened to these individuals. It should not have been allowed. The Fair Work Commission has cracked down on Mr Bani. There has been a fine of over $200,000. But we need to ensure there are no more Mr Banis in the future.

The evidence that was given is stark and startling. Mr Aru gave evidence that he did not always have food to eat. Sometimes for lunch he would have half a sandwich, but on other occasions he had no food. On some days he did have food for dinner. He remembers cooking and eating some pumpkins and potatoes that employees had given him at Keller Farm for dinner, and that was all he had to eat that day. He felt hungry a lot of the time.

This is unacceptable. This is the reason we are cracking down on these types of organisations. These are the reasons that we have the Modern Slavery Bill before the House. This cannot continue in the great nation of Australia. That’s the reason I’ve been so passionate about it, as have my colleagues the member for Cowper, the senator for Queensland Barry O’Sullivan and a number of others who work in the agricultural area and who represent agricultural areas. We do not want this to continue. The evidence is just terrible.

But I won’t continue on that; I will talk about what we’ve done. What we’ve done is that we’ve established Taskforce Cadena. Taskforce Cadena is a multijurisdictional task force across the board—AFP, ATO, local police, local governments—to crack down on these organisations which phoenix their companies and quite simply disappear. I know that I’ve seen plenty of proposals around from different organisations and different governments where they suggest that there should be a register of all of these local labour hire companies. But—can I say to you, Mr Speaker—that will make no difference at all, because it is only the people who are compliant who will register. It is just them. The others will continue to pay cash, and they’ll continue to exploit these people. It is things like Taskforce Cadena which will crack down on this very, very poor behaviour, and I certainly commend the minister for its establishment.

We’ve also provided an additional $20 million to Fair Work, which is necessary, but I think we need to approach this in a way which will be successful. That will require people on the ground because, as many of us in this room know, in terms of horticulture, it is very simple for people to go to a different paddock, with 300 workers for four hours, and then shift. It’s really hard and very difficult to get hold of.

But I say also in support of the bill that this is clearly a good action. The government is putting forward a process to crack down on modern slavery in terms of this bill, and I commend the bill to the House.

The SPEAKER: It being almost 1.30, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43.

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