Monday, 05 June 2023

Tackling Temporary Worker Exploitation

Topics: temporary worker Exploitation, migrant workers

Solidarity Hall, Victorian Trades Hall

Monday, 5 June 2023 | 6pm 


I begin by acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of the land we meet on today, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation.

I pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging and extend my respects to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with here us today.

I am proud to be part of a government committed to the implementation of the Uluru statement from the Heart in full, with constitutional recognition enshrined with a Voice to Parliament.

A government that will walk with the trade union movement to form a strong and successful campaign for a Yes vote in the referendum later this year.

Let me be clear right now: There is a crisis of exploitation in Australia.

Too many workers are forced to confront vulnerability created by our visa system.

This means more wage theft for workers.

Australians and people who hold temporary visas alike.

Over the past 25 years, a collection of rules combined with apathy when it comes to enforcement has created deep seated exploitation of workers.

And people too terrified to speak out when they are mistreated.

Every day as Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, and Multicultural Affairs, I hear, see, and read stories of mistreatment and exploitation.

Empty promises of permanent residency to silence workers.

Wage theft left unchecked and unopposed with threats of a phone call to the Australian Border Force.

People scared to speak to a union, or even to call in sick.

Sham contracting.

Stories where people have had their passports locked away for years.

Sexual harassment and sexual assault.

The list of behaviours is almost endless, those circumstances where workers’ choices have been curtailed, with many unable to quit.

We all know this happens.

According to a new report by the Grattan Institute, up to one in six recent migrants are paid below the minimum wage.

So, it’s not just a bad apple or two.

These examples are the everyday experience at work for too many people who hold temporary visas in Australia.

The economic consequences of this disastrous.

Wage theft is fundamentally anti-competitive -- a race to the bottom.

When migrant workers are being underpaid – it hurts us all, driving wages and conditions down for everyone.

It eats away at the institutions that make Australia a decent society, like our world leading minimum wage.

And it harms employers who do the right thing.

It means that too many employers are faced with a difficult choice – whether to pay their workers the lawful amount and sacrifice market share, or join the race to the bottom.

Our egalitarian instinct, our deep-seated commitment to the fair go, is the most powerful force to stare down this crisis to have taken hold in workplaces across the country.

The Albanese Government believes no worker should be penalised for speaking up.

I’m sure the Australian community is with us here.

And no-one supports workers being threatened with deportation for simply asking to be fairly paid for the hours they work.

Friends, the road to removing exploitation from workplaces is a long one.

The former Liberal government oversaw an unchecked rise in exploitation.

Ignoring story after story of what was occurring.

The 7/11 scandal was a national wake up call to everyone except the former Liberal government.

After three years of work, the Liberals failed to fully implement the Migrant Workers Taskforce, chaired by Professor Allen Fels and Dr David Cousins AM.

Peter Dutton oversaw immigration policy as system based on extraction, stripping back the common bonds of our society.

Prioritising temporary visas over permanent visas.

Changing visa rules to restrict workers’ rights.

Removing pathways to residency.

At his direction, immigration compliance shrank.

Bad employers knew there was little chance of getting caught, and little by the way of consequences.

The Albanese Labor Government is doing things differently.

We are in the process of implementing each and every recommendation of the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce.

But not stopping there where there is much more to be done.

We have increased the Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold to address almost a decade of deliberate wage suppression.

And most importantly, we will ensure those who are exploited in the workplace can speak up without fearing for their visa.

In the coming weeks, I will introduce legislation into the Parliament – the Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023.

This Bill reflects the Government’s strong principle that approaches to employment and migration will work side by side to address exploitation.

The Fair Work Act and the Migration Act must work together, not pull in opposite directions.

Minister Clare O’Neil, Minister Tony Burke, and myself have worked closely on these proposals.

Minister O’Neil is determined to design out exploitation via the ongoing work of the Migration Strategy.

She is passionate about ensuring all workplaces across our country live up to our collective aspirations. I’m grateful to be at her side on this journey.

Minister Burke has been tireless in working to improve the Fair Work Act, so that it lives up to its name.

Strengthening employer compliance. The Bill will do what it says it does.

We will implement recommendations 19 and 20 of the Migrant Workers Taskforce, as well as several additional measures.

Actioning these recommendations, it will be a criminal offence to coerce someone into breaching their visa condition.

It will be a criminal offence to use a worker's visa status to accept exploitation conditions in the workplace.

Penalties under the Migration Act will be significantly increased to better deter unscrupulous employers.

New ‘prohibition notices’ will be introduced, to prevent employers and individuals from further hiring people on temporary visas where they have exploited migrants.

Just last week, the ABF fined Utopia – a bubble tea company with 13 stores in WA – over $13,000 and barred them from sponsoring workers for two years.

However, this does not prevent them from hiring other workers who hold temporary visas, like international students and backpackers.

Under our new framework, businesses like Utopia would be prohibited from hiring new workers who hold temporary visas for a period of time.

These prohibition notices will be a decision for the Minister for Immigration and be delegable.

I will investigate how the Fair Work Ombudsman can play a role in this process.

These notices will be triggered by breaches under both the Migration Act and the Fair Work Act, drawing on the Fair Work Ombudsman’s penalty regime.

There will also be triggers for deliberate and repeated cases of non-compliance by employers.

The Albanese Government will seek to actively use these notices, to prevent employers who have broken the trust of our community, from hiring further workers who hold temporary visas.

In industries where exploitation is particularly widespread – accommodation, food services, cleaning, and construction – this is a necessary step to show we can tackle exploitation where it is most prevalent.

The Bill also provides the Australian Border Force with new powers, including enforceable undertakings and compliance notices to target employers.

We have heard from the ABF they do not have the tools necessary to tackle the crisis.

That won’t be the case in the future.

The ABF will be out there enforcing the law. Businesses who do the wrong thing should be ready for a knock at the door.

Some of these measures were included in a previous Bill under the former Liberal government.

But we all know their heart wasn’t in it.

They never even put it to a vote in the Parliament.

Our Bill goes beyond what was previously proposed.

For many people who have been exploited, the Migration Act essentially criminalises speaking out.

Section 235 of the Migration Act creates a criminal offence to breach a work-related visa condition. A penalty on the visa holder.

One of the most important measures in our Bill will be to repeal this.

Despite not being used since introduction in 1994, the mere presence of such a provision understandably discourages people from reporting exploitation.

We will remove this anachronism.

Finally, we will seek to demonstrate to people who have been exploited they can have faith in the system.

Many in this room will be aware of something called the Assurance Protocol.

This is a process between the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Department of Home Affairs designed to ensure when people report their employer to the FWO, they are not penalised by the Department of Home Affairs.

Ensuring people can speak out is so important as so often the experience of exploitation is the very reason a worker breaches a visa condition.

The Assurance Protocol has been used just 79 times since introduction in 2019, demonstrating widespread failure to instil faith in people to speak up.

Our approach will not be premised on a secret piece of paper. We will not rely on mistreated workers having blind faith.

Instead, we will show those who have been exploited they will not be disadvantaged by speaking out and reporting their employer.

We will introduce what you have been calling for – a firewall – to protect all workers, Australians and visa holders.

Legislation, new powers, and large penalties will not be worth much without the knowledge employers who beach the law will be found and penalised.

We need to make sure employers think twice before deciding to underpay workers.

There are too few consequences for those who do the wrong thing.

This allows too many to choose to exploit their workers.

The recent Budget includes additional resources, in part to target employers who mistreat their workers.

This funding will be ongoing, if the ABF can demonstrate it is effective at tackling those who exploit.

I understand some in this room will be sceptical of more funding to enforce the Migration Act.

I am confident this funding will be directed toward those employers who break the law, as opposed to cancelling the visas of exploited workers.

This cannot be the answer as it simply drives exploitation further underground.

What I have announced gives effect to the recommendations and intent of the Migrant Workers Taskforce.

But as so many in this room understand, while new powers and enforcement are necessary, alone, they will not solve this problem.

At the core, preventing exploitation means giving people confidence to speak up, to organise collectively, to quit their job if necessary, and report it to authorities.

This is not easy. But working together, we can make progress.

In the coming weeks, we will embark on a process of co-design to examine what a workplace justice visa should look like.

We will also examine the best approach to a firewall between the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Department of Home Affairs.

These processes are administratively complex which is why the Government will do it together, with unions, with civil society, with business, and informed by people who have been exploited.

We need to know what rules will best encourage people to speak up.

We need to know who is best placed to help vulnerable workers navigate these processes.

We need to explore what shared responsibility looks like when it comes to compliance and communicating.

We cannot simply do the same thing over again and these two ideas can help us fundamentally transform Australia’s approach to tackling exploitation.

We want to send a message and we want to make sure these reforms last.

In addition, we have made further decisions to better encourage people to speak up and leave an exploitative employer.

People working on Temporary Skilled Shortage visas will have six months instead of 60 days to be without an employer.

During this period, they will have work rights.

While this is not a silver bullet, it is a necessary step to mitigate the worst aspect of employer-bound visa rules.

In addition, the time required to qualify for the Temporary Residency Transition stream of the main permanent sponsored visa – the Employer Nomination Scheme – will reduce from three years to two years.

And as announced by Minister O’Neil recently, every person who holds a Temporary Skill Shortage visa will have a pathway to permanent residency, reversing one of the most destructive changes of Peter Dutton’s tenure overseeing immigration.

A temporary skilled work visa with no permanent residency pathway is not one of mutual respect – it is Australian mercantilism, based on extracting whatever we can from people before discarding them when we are done.

This is a journey.

The union movement, like the Labor Party, like our country, has a deep and at times fraught history with migration.

There have been points in our history where Governments, including Labor Governments, and union officials alike sought gains for workers through exclusion.

Today, we organise collectively, regardless of skin colour or visa status.

Today, every union speaks multiple languages.

Today, we recognise this history by fighting against division and hatred.

Because in a good society, built on immigration, we are all in this together and because united, we are stronger.

What I have outlined tonight is the next step in our journey.

We have the opportunity to address the injustice for workers across Australia.

To encourage people to feel more confident to speak up.

To punish those employers who do the wrong thing in the interests of all workers.

But there will be more to do. And we will keep doing more.

To those who have poured their heart and soul into tackling the exploitation of migrant workers, I say thank you.

To those who ensured the voices of those being exploited were heard, I say thank you.

You helped force the Liberals’ hand when indifference was the response.

You defeated approaches based on values anathema to our country, like the Agricultural visa.

Thank you to the ACTU for your leadership on these issues over such a long period of time.

Here at Trades Hall, the Migrant Workers Centre has forged a powerful voice for many who are vulnerable in the workplace.

Thank you Luke, Matt and your team.

In Sydney, the union movement funds Visa Assist, to provide migration advice to those who would otherwise go without.

Thank you Mark, Thomas, Josh and your team.

Thank you to every worker, delegate, and official who has been a part of this journey, and to those joining us tonight.

Thank you to the activists, advocates and community organisers.

Community and pro-bono lawyers.

Researchers, authors, and artists.

Thank you and please walk with the Government on this journey.

Because at its heart, immigration is about nation-building.

But we cannot build our nation on the back of those being exploited.

Exploitation is a sign of weakness. A smallness of character.

It is the opposite of what we aspire to be.

A strong, kind, egalitarian community where your visa status does not reflect your position in society.