Taskforce to tackle labour-hire abuse

18 May, 2015 12:22 PM
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File image.
The message is clear: by hiring illegal workers, businesses are risking more than their profits
File image.

A MULTI-AGENCY taskforce to tackle exploitation of workers in the agriculture sector will be set up by the Abbott government, targeting fraud committed in the working holiday visa program.

Issues with dodgy labour-hire contractors has been championed by Queensland National Party MP Keith Pitt and gained increased prominence after a recent ABC Four Corners program investigated some of the horrific practices.

Last week in the federal budget, Mr Pitt said the government showed it had saved about $550 million over five years from closing unnecessary detention centres.

He said he wanted a small portion of that money to be diverted to a multi-agency taskforce and an effective one-stop-shop hotline for foreign workers and farmers.

Today, a spokesperson for Assistant Immigration and Border Protection Minister Michaelia Cash said the Department of Immigration and Border Protection would establish a dedicated taskforce to investigate recent allegations of visa fraud.

Senator Cash’s spokesperson said the government would announce further details about this dedicated taskforce in coming days, such as its investigative powers, costs and structure.

“We will be working with the Fair Work Ombudsman and other regulatory agencies to join them into the taskforce to ensure that matters involving visa fraud and worker conditions and entitlements are investigated swiftly,” the spokesperson said.

“Visa fraud and worker exploitation are serious offences and the Immigration and Border Protection portfolio is working proactively with the Fair Work Ombudsman to stamp them out.

“In the lead up to the establishment of the Australian Border Force (ABF) on 1 July 2015 - with the necessary legislation having passed through the Senate last week - the Immigration and Border Protection portfolio has significantly enhanced its investigative abilities.

“Targeting and disrupting entities which seek to commit visa fraud here in Australia will be a high priority for ABF investigators and will be the key focus of the taskforce being established.

“The message is clear: by hiring illegal workers, businesses are risking more than their profits.

“They risk their livelihood and are gambling with a possible criminal conviction.”

Long push for response

Mr Pitt said he’d been pushing for the taskforce since May last year and welcomed its arrival.

“I’ve had countless meetings and discussions with the relevant ministers about this issue and today’s announcement shows they share my concerns and are listening to their backbench,” he said.

“This is also a significant win for The Nationals, who at federal council in August voted unanimously to seek a multi-jurisdictional taskforce.”

Mr Pitt said allegations and complaints made to his office ranged from the underpayment and sexual exploitation of workers to tax evasion, visa breaches, racial discrimination, intimidation of farmers and overcrowding in private residential dwellings.

He said he and Queensland Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan hosted a stakeholder forum in Brisbane last year where they received a “very clear message” that new legislation and further inquiries are not the answer.

He said those stakeholders wanted real action and said there needed to be greater enforcement of existing laws and greater co-operation between the many relevant agencies, across all three levels of government.

Mr Pitt said he looked forward to receiving more information about how the taskforce will be resourced and structured.

He said the taskforce should focus on disrupting highly organised criminal networks, rather than simply carrying out surprise audits on law-abiding farms.

“I will also be asking the Minister to establish a hotline or email address so that members of the public can lodge their allegations with the taskforce,” he said.

The Australian Greens have also expressed concerns about the issue and will raise concerns during an existing Senate inquiry that’s investigating into Australia’s working visa system.

Greens MP Adam Bandt said the Senate inquiry would examine the current system’s impact on both overseas and local workers, wages and conditions for overseas workers, as well as whether monitoring and enforcement of the working visa programs are adequate.

“Incidents of exploitation and abuse must not be allowed to continue,” he said.

But Mr Pitt said there had been countless reports and inquiries to examine the issue, with the first initiated in 1999 by former federal Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock.

“Quite frankly, in my view, the current Senate inquiry into temporary work visas is a waste of taxpayers’ money and parliamentary resources,” Mr Pitt said.

“We’ve already had two similar Senate inquires in recent years - the problem is widely known and well documented.

“The money would have been better spent on active enforcement and not another talkfest.”

National Farmers' Federation (NFF) workplace relations manager Sarah McKinnon said the NFF welcomed the taskforce but would like to be consulted on its details.

“We don’t support exploitation of workers so we think the taskforce is an idea worth pursuing but we have not been consulted on how it may work,” she said.

“We believe it has merit but would like to be consulted on the details.”

Bad seeds

Last week, Mr Pitt said ending exploitation in the farm-labour sector started with the supermarket giants “who are squeezing our growers for every last cent”.

“The supermarkets may be able to dodge responsibility and liability by pleading ignorant, but under the current law there is no such protection for farmers,” he said.

“Even those using contract labour-hire companies are equally culpable.”

Mr Pitt said the majority of farmers do the right thing but a few “bad seeds” are giving the horticulture sector a bad reputation.

“Appallingly, farmers’ share of the selling price has declined from almost 90 per cent in the early 1900s to less than 10 per cent today,” he said.

“The time for enquiries, reports and reviews is over. The problem is well-documented. We need better co-ordination and enforcement of existing laws.”

Backpacker exploitation

According to Mr Pitt, unethical labour-hire operators are exploiting backpackers coming into Australia on 417 working holiday visas and student visas, employed in sectors like horticulture.

He also believes the issues have escalated dramatically over the past 18 months.

“I’ve had any number of reports of people receiving physical violence, death threats - sexual abuse and sexual favours are rampant,” he said.

“Some of the reports we get are that to get signed-off for your 88 days, to get year two on your (417 working holiday) visa, the employer says: ‘We’ll give you two options – it’s $1000 on the table or you on the table’.”

After the ABC investigation, National Farmers' Federation (NFF) president Brent Finlay said that the mistreatment of workers had no place on Australian farms.

“Migrant workers are essential to the agriculture sector. Without them, there would be a chronic labour shortage at peak harvest times of the year,” he said.

Mr Finlay said the NFF was working to lift employment standards in the sector through the development of a best practice scheme for agricultural employment.

He said the NFF scheme would establish a framework for good farm practice in Australia by working closely with government and other stakeholders, to lift compliance across the sector as a whole.

“We want everyone who works on an Australian farm to walk away with a positive experience,” he said.

“All farmers have a responsibility to make good choices about their employment practices and the contractors they use.

“And it’s not just farmers - this is a whole of supply chain issue.”

The Australian Greens have also expressed concerns about the issue and will raise concerns during an existing Senate inquiry that’s investigating into Australia’s working visa system.

Greens MP Adam Bandt said the Senate inquiry would examine the current system’s impact on both overseas and local workers, wages and conditions for overseas workers, as well as whether monitoring and enforcement of the working visa programs are adequate.

“Incidents of exploitation and abuse must not be allowed to continue,” he said.

FarmOnline
Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Date: Newest first | Oldest first

READER COMMENTS

Jacky
18/05/2015 1:32:24 PM

Its no wonder young Australians dont want to work in Agriculture.
Todd
19/05/2015 3:37:00 PM

I hope the enquiry will include the practices of the poultry meat industry as well, not just horticulture or the other industries. A simple google of labour force abuses in someparts of the poultry sector shows there is a long and sordid history associated with criminal labour practices

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