Migration Amendment (Protecting Migrant Workers) Bill 2021

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Mr HAWKE (Mitchell—Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs) (09:34): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Migrant workers make a significant contribution to Australia's labour market and are a vital part of our economy and our community. They meet skills and labour shortages and contribute a diversity of ideas and experience. Migrant workers will continue to play an important role to assist economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

This bill implements key recommendations made by the Migrant Workers' Taskforce. It amends the Migration Act to strengthen protections for migrant workers in Australia, while also helping to ensure that law-abiding Australian employers are not undercut by unscrupulous competitors.

The Migrant Workers' Taskforce shone a light on the seriousness of the exploitation of vulnerable workers in some Australian workplaces. It highlighted the significant impact that such conduct has on individual workers, law-abiding employers, our economy and our international reputation as a preferred migration destination.

As the task force observed, migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to underpayment and related exploitative work practices.

In its report, the task force recommended making it an offence for a person to knowingly pressure, influence or coerce a temporary migrant worker to breach a visa condition.

In response, this bill establishes new offences against coercing or exerting undue influence or pressure on migrant workers to accept exploitative work arrangements.

These offences, and related civil penalties, will apply to employers, labour hire intermediaries and other people involved in employing or referring noncitizens for work in Australia.

Under these new offences, it is not acceptable for an employer to either:

Coerce or pressure a migrant worker into accepting work arrangements that would lead to them breaching a work-related visa condition; or

Use the threat of a dob-in or visa cancellation or withhold evidence of employment that would support a future visa application, to induce a migrant worker to agree to sub-standard employment conditions.

The task force also recommended exploring mechanisms to exclude employers who are convicted by a court for underpaying migrant workers from employing new temporary visa holders for a specific period of time.

To address the recommendation of the task force, the bill establishes a power and framework for me, as the minister for immigration, to prohibit, for a period of time, an employer from directly or indirectly employing additional temporary migrant workers.

This power will be available where a person is convicted under the Migration Act of a work related offence, ordered to pay a penalty for breaching a work related provision, or where a sponsorship bar is imposed on an approved work sponsor.

The new power will also be available where an employer breaches a remuneration related provision of the Fair Work Act 2009, where that breach affects a non-citizen employee.

This prohibition is designed to penalise the misuse of our migration program, and migrant workers, and create a safer environment for temporary migrant workers looking for employment.

Prohibited employers' details will be published on the department's website. This will provide transparency to prospective migrant workers and the Australian community generally, while also putting unscrupulous employers on notice that the exploitation of migrant workers is unacceptable.

The bill also includes amendments to require employers and third-party providers who refer noncitizens for work to verify the immigration status and conditions of prospective non-citizen employees appropriately, using the Visa Entitlement Verification Online system. This system, known as VEVO, is designed for individuals and businesses to check whether a noncitizen holds a visa, and the conditions that attach to that individual visa.

These amendments clarify and strengthen the existing expectations under the Migration Act.

Unfortunately, some employers and labour hire intermediaries choose to ignore these obligations.

This creates serious integrity concerns for our visa programs.

These amendments clarify that employers also have a fundamental role to play in ensuring the integrity of Australia's migration program.

VEVO is a 24/7 online system, administered by the department. It is the most effective way for people and businesses involved in employing noncitizens to confirm that prospective non-citizen employees are lawfully in Australia and have the necessary permission to work. It is important that employers and other organisations understand and adhere to their obligations in relation to the employment of noncitizens.

Doing so helps to protect employers from facing far more severe consequences, should they be found to have committed an offence by allowing unlawful noncitizens to work, or allowing noncitizens to work in breach of a visa condition.

In addition, the bill also increases the financial penalties for work related offences and related civil penalties under the Migration Act.

These changes demonstrate how seriously this government views the issue of misusing our migration program to exploit migrant workers.

The bill also includes new compliance tools to provide a more robust and graduated enforcement scheme, including compliance notices and enforceable undertakings.

These amendments will give the Australian Border Force tools to work with employers and support them to do the right thing. Our primary goal is not to punish people for unintentional breaches but to change non-compliant behaviour. We want all employers following the same rules.

These new tools build on the existing compliance framework, which provides for an escalating range of measures that can be used when employers fail to comply with the law, including:

Education and administrative warnings, to infringements; with civil penalties and criminal prosecution available for serious and repeat offences.

All measures apply equally to employers and those engaged in recruitment or labour hire industries.

To those employers out there who always have complied, and always will comply, with their obligations, we thank you, and this bill will help to level the playing field.

As we progressively open the nation's borders, and seek to rebuild the economy, businesses will again look to temporary migrant workers to support our economic recovery. And, as we open up and our universities, tourism and hospitality sectors seek to recover, we will find ourselves competing with other developed nations for temporary migrants who have long contributed so much to Australia.

This bill will support our prosperity and protect migrant workers.

I commend this bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.