I rise to make my contribution to the Labour Hire Licensing Bill 2017.
This is a bill that will establish a universal licensing system for labour hire service providers in order to provide transparency and integrity for the labour hire industry, and it aims to protect vulnerable workers from exploitative practices by ensuring labour hire providers meet a fit and proper person test, comply fully with their legal obligations and face criminal charges for alleged breaches.
I note this bill was drafted in response to the final report of the Victorian inquiry into labour hire and insecure work, which was tabled in Parliament in October 2016. This inquiry achieved significant engagement during the consultation, with almost 700 written submissions, more than 100 public hearing sessions and evidence from more than 200 individual witnesses. A number of these submissions took place in my electorate of Shepparton. It is a region well known for its horticultural industry and in particular its use of seasonal workers for tasks such as fruit picking, packing and other farm work responsibilities.
I will say at the outset that I will be supporting the passage of this bill through this place, and I am pleased to see the government address many of the issues that have arisen. The problems that we have been trying to solve have created a significant impact in regional areas. While it is a concern to me as someone who ran a business for a long time that we are actually creating a layer of red tape here, on balance I think it is one that is necessary to protect vulnerable workers. I know employers have the burden of payroll, of WorkSafe, of superannuation — a whole range of things that create a great deal of red tape, and a lot of work has been done in that area to try and mitigate that, to try and reduce the red tape — and here we are creating a new licensing authority as a way of licensing these contractors but, as I say, I think it is necessary.
In my electorate of Shepparton, while they are mostly law-abiding farmers and contract providers, it is not uncommon to hear whispers of dodgy practices. Several of these experiences were detailed in the inquiry, giving a welcome voice to those who for a long time felt that they had not been helped in any way with their predicament. I have had young people come into my office in recent years talking about the requirement that they had to have their accommodation deducted from their wages and saying they were required to live in really gross physical circumstances that are crowded and difficult with no transport into town — arrangements that are just wholly unacceptable at this time.
One submission alleged a Goulburn Valley labour hire contractor had underpaid 13 people almost $3000 after they had worked on a tomato farm near Tatura in 2015. The information was provided to the inquiry by a Tallygaroopna farmer on behalf of workers who were of African descent. Some of them really could not speak English that well, and they did not feel comfortable giving that evidence on their own behalf, but the farmer did it for them. Speaking to a local newspaper, the Shepparton News, three of the workers said that they were contracted by the contractor and that they had been in a situation where they had been contracted and had not been paid for several days of their work. The contractor came to their house and said that he would pay them. He had an argument with them about how much they were paid, and he never showed up again, so they were left high and dry.
Another submission detailed the experience of two Taiwanese workers who were paid $14 an hour, cash in hand, at a farm in Shepparton, and that was some $7.62 less than the legal minimum in the horticulture industry at that time. Evidence given by the National Union of Workers also alleged questionable visa practices by labour hire companies, suggesting it was quite common for contractors to offer to sign off on extending working holiday-maker visas to lure people to the region, only to disappear after the work was completed and in some cases not have the authority to do what they said they would do.
It should be pointed out, as other members have already done, that this is a problem across the state, and it is certainly not unique to Shepparton. In the past several years stories have emerged of systematic worker exploitation in farming communities, and we have seen a number of raids and enforcement of the law in this area in recent years, which I think have had some impact on perhaps reducing the extent of that abuse.
The stories tell of workers being dudded by contractors stitching them up for rent and transport fees, which are often deducted from their low wages before the money even hits their pockets, and of workers who are packed to the rafters in old houses or shabby rooms above local pubs, waiting to be ferried to and from farm worksites, and who are often working long days — longer than they should. They are charged often exorbitantly for the accommodation arrangements that they get. Quite frankly this is the thing you hear about happening in other countries, not in Australia, and certainly it should not be happening here. Most workers do not complain about it. They tolerate bad conditions because they fear the consequences. They could often be really stranded if they were to complain and find themselves in a situation where they are not being paid. They are often trying to send money home to their families who are totally reliant on it for their wellbeing.
It is important to protect the rights of these vulnerable workers, and they are entitled to the same working conditions as all Australians when they are in our country. It is the way it is. I know the horticultural industry certainly faces a great deal of competition internationally and in other countries. These horticultural workers are paid a pittance, and it does create issues of competition for Australian farmers to have to be in a position where they are paying a full and decent wage and then selling on a market where people are being paid a couple of dollars an hour in Chile, in Mexico and in countries throughout Asia that they are in competition with. That can be a real challenge, but it is the law of this country that people are entitled to that level of protection.
The nature of contracting often means that farmers themselves are at arms-length from the really unsatisfactory arrangements, and I believe that this law really creates a measure of protection not only for the worker but also for the farmers. Generally speaking, it is safe to say they do not want to be associated with those sorts of exploitative practices.
It is also important to look at the knock-on effect of these sorts of practices, and there is a knock-on effect to farming industries and that is another reason to remedy it. The agriculture and horticulture industry, in particular, is inherently reliant on seasonal workers, and reputational damage by stories such as we heard before the inquiry and more broadly should not be underestimated. We saw the damage that was done during the backpackers debate in federal Parliament, and I can say from my own personal experience that it is apparent that that did have an impact on getting the number of workers into this country that we need at times. That sort of reputational damage does us no good. Similarly the exploitation of workers would easily have the same effect.
We are often referred to as the food bowl of Australia in the Goulburn Valley. In terms of fruit production, we produce 86 per cent of pears, 28 per cent of the nation’s apple harvest and 70 per cent of the national peach crop. While for most of the year the fruit is growing quietly on the trees and farming families or just a few employees are needed to look after it, when the fruit ripens you need a whole lot of people there to pick it, to pick it quickly and to get it to market, so reliance on that particular seasonal workforce is really very important and essential.
As I said before, in Shepparton I remember many years of walking through the supermarket and seeing so many young backpackers. They are tanned, they are up early in the morning, they are out working in the hot sun and they are often swimming in the lake in the late afternoon and camping around the lake. It is a sort of culture that was a very lovely culture for Shepparton to have, and I am sure that extended throughout many other communities that rely on seasonal workers. There has been a lot of change. The countries that they come from now are different countries, and I think we have lost a lot of European backpackers for a number of reasons. I do not doubt that the backpacker tax issue contributed to that in some way.
The consequences for the economic future of our communities if farmers are left high and dry, in terms of not getting that group of people to come in and do the seasonal work, would be really drastic. Of course agriculture is not the only industry that is impacted by concerns around labour hire, so I am pleased that the recommendations actually extend to other sectors. It is not only horticulture, but it is also contract cleaning and the meat industries. They experience some of the same issues. I support the bill.