the Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023

The Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023

I rise to commend this bill, the Migration Amendment (Strengthening Employer Compliance) Bill 2023, and I do so because action in this space is important. It's also overdue, and it is overdue because, following a decade of neglect from the former Liberal government, it's now up to the Albanese government to take much-needed action to implement the key recommendations in the Migrant Workers' Taskforce report. This report came about after our nation saw a crisis of exploitation occurring in a number of workplaces, and despite national debate and the uproar caused, the former Liberal government chose to take no initiative. We know, because it was brought to our attention and it was brought to the nation's attention, what was happening to many migrant workers. There was rampant exploitation going on, which led to the Migrant Workers' Taskforce, who made recommendations that the former government failed to bring on after two years. That report went to the Morrison government in 2019. Two years on, a bill was introduced but, as per the common poor standards of the former government, the bill was never brought forward for debate.

As always, there was lots of talk. There was an inquiry. There was a report. There was even legislation drafted. But the actual final steps to make those laws were not taken by the former government, and when you hear and remember those words, that low wages were a deliberate feature of the former government's economic plan, you can make your own assumptions about how those low wages were created. But we know worker exploitation was part of driving down wages because it undermined other businesses who were behaving appropriately. Businesses who were paying award wages to migrant workers, businesses who were doing the right thing, were actively being undermined, creating a false economy, by people who were doing the wrong thing. The lack of action from the former government is not surprising, but it took a devastating toll on our country's valued residents. Electorates like mine felt the brunt of this, and small businesses in electorates like mine felt the pressure to comply with what was irregular rather than what was regular, because those exploiting workers got a competitive edge and got a better bottom line.

Introducing this bill fulfilling the report's recommendations is a priority for this government. When I say vulnerable workers were exploited, they were targeted by some companies giving preference to temporary visas as opposed to permanent visas. A backlog of almost a million visa applications was created. Basic administrative tasks that are crucial to a seamless operation were neglected. It's time appropriate action is taken to protect those who contribute their skills for this nation's benefit. We've done a lot of work in our first year of office around migration and the visa system. During our time in government we've already made significant changes to the migration and visa system. Tackling exploitation is only possible through the establishment of a functional and well-administered visa system. Extended waiting times for visas and poor service to clients create additional vulnerabilities and problems for workers in our nation. With regard to visas, we have significantly slashed the backlog created by the former government by employing over 500 new staff. There are now fewer than 600,000 visa applications at hand. Now that we're in government, temporary skills shortage visas for health and education workers are being assessed and finalised in a matter of just a few days.

Since we took government the backlog for citizenship has been reduced to fewer than 80,000 people, which is the lowest it has been in six years. Up to 90 per cent of people are now waiting less than six months for a citizenship ceremony. In my electorate, that has been critical. My local government has worked tirelessly across these first 12 months to get a backlog of citizenship applications actually through citizenship ceremonies, because we know how important citizenship is to people. For many in our communities who come into the country on refugee or humanitarian visas it will be the first time they have citizenship. I hear it all of the time at citizenship ceremonies.

Other people may have come on a student visa and then gone on to employment and, working through the system, getting their permanent residency. In my electorate the waiting time to go from permanent residency to citizenship had blown out, so I am pleased to be a part of the government whose intent to shorten these time frames has seen action occur in my local government, where they now understand how important it is for people who are seeking citizenship to do so as quickly and conveniently as possible.

We have made significant efforts towards establishing safe and fair working conditions. Despite this, one in six people who have recently migrated to Australia are being paid less than the minimum wage, and consequently this drives down wages and worsens conditions for other workers in Australia. This government is committed to addressing any and all kinds of exploitation, and we are taking action now. This bill will take key recommendations from Professor Allan Fels's Migrant Workers' Taskforce report and implement them to create a much more appropriate standard for those employing migrant workers.

As per recommendation 19 from the task force, new criminal offences will come into effect for those who use someone's migration status to exploit them in the workplace. A new tool will also be engaged in prohibiting employers that have engaged in exploitative work practices from being able to hire workers on temporary visas for a period, as per recommendation 20 from the task force. There will be an aligning and an increasing of penalties for work related breaches, with an increase from 60 units to 240 units. This will act as an important deterrent. Compliance notices for work related breaches, which consist of a formal notice for employers who are in breach of relevant Migration Act and migration regulations, will be enforced. This will allow for the promotion of compliance with the Fair Work Act. There will be consideration of worker exploitation as a potential mitigating factor should a visa cancellation be under consideration.

The Albanese Labor government is committed to doing more than just the bare minimum. This bill will go further. Higher penalties will be implemented for transgressors. The Australian Border Force will receive new compliance tools. A part of the Migration Act that makes it a criminal penalty for workers to breach their visa conditions, which criminalises speaking up, will be repealed by this government. Through the implementation of appropriate protections from visa cancellations, workers will be encouraged to speak up and report exploitation. I have heard stories in my electorate about threats of visa cancellations and how they are used to exploit workers and get them to work for below minimum wages.

We should not be surprised that those opposite failed to act, because since we have come to government those opposite have refused to back in changes that this government is making to ensure workers are getting paid award wages. They oppose a regulation that would make it illegal to advertise a position for below the minimum wage. They oppose it. It makes good sense to everybody else in the country. It makes good sense to people in my community that you shouldn't be able to advertise a position when you're not prepared to pay the remuneration that the position is entitled to. That seems fair to me. They are the same kinds of practices against which this bill will put in place deterrents and fines, so as to ensure that workers are not exploited and to ensure that the legislation carries public awareness around what's going on here.

The Australian Border Force will receive new compliance tools. The part of the Migration Act that makes it a criminal offence for workers to breach their visa conditions, which criminalises speaking up, will be repealed. We encourage workers to speak up and report exploitation by putting in place appropriate protections from visa cancellations. In turn, this will protect businesses doing the right thing. It will protect all of our workers from having their conditions and their remuneration undermined.

The government provided $50 million over four years to the Australian Border Force in the 2023-24 budget. The ABF oversaw a month of action in July and used its resources to target employers who were suspected of doing the wrong thing. The government is raising awareness of employer obligations and taking action to get out and visit businesses in a substantive way for the first time in a very long time. This work would not have come to fruition had there not been an increase in funding or the prioritisation taken by this government to tackle worker exploitation. As Minister O'Neil made clear, this indifference will stop with our government.

We will be a positive change for those who have chosen to call Australia their home and who are being exploited. This is a matter demanding a response. The former government's lack of competence and value on this matter will not continue to be reflected in the current government's actions. Our government has been engaging in an intensive co-design process with industry, unions and civil society to assist in informing the design of further safeguards within the visa system. We want it to be safe for those who are being exploited in their workplace to speak up and to do so in the confidence that our government is backing them. We want to explore the potential for a new visa for workplace justice to ensure this exploitation ends.

We are aware that there are gaps in what workers understand. There may also be gaps in what employers understand. Many people are unsure of who to turn to or where to go should something go wrong. Our migration system needs to work for everyone. It needs to work for the workers and it needs to work for business. Part of that is creating public awareness of these changes, but also ensuring that we have in place policies and a government that will take action where people ignore the rules, where people seek to avoid the rules and where people seek to undermine wages and conditions in this country and undermine other businesses while doing so. I commend this bill to the House.

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