I rise to make a contribution on the Occupational Health and Safety and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2021. In the Goulburn Valley we have many hundreds of hire contractors, and most of them operate in a safe and responsible and caring way for their employers and employees. We particularly see them of course in the horticulture industry, but we see them in many other places as well, whether it be across abattoirs, many other factories or even professional organisations where labour hire is a feature of those operations. However, over the last few years we have seen some contractors who do take advantage of the transient harvest workers we rely on heavily to pick our crops every year, and Mr Forsyth in his inquiry identified particular issues around very poor behaviour in the horticulture industry: issues of non-payment and underpayment for work as well as housing workers in appalling conditions and overcharging them for the opportunity to live in those sorts of conditions.
So this particular bill is an important piece of legislation in that it really draws me back to the Labour Hire Authority and that legislation that was passed just a few years ago. It established the Labour Hire Licensing Act 2018, which established the Labour Hire Authority. It was set up following that particular inquiry into behaviour around a whole lot of the labour industry at that time, and it did indicate that there was widespread abuse and exploitation of workers across a range of fields.
Since it was established—and it has taken me a long time to get some figures on this—I am glad to see that the Labour Hire Authority has refused 28 substandard applications from contractors, it has put another 73 on notice that they would be refused a licence, 31 licences had conditions imposed and one licence-holder was suspended pending inquiries. So there is clearly work being done there. It is hard for me to judge whether they are good numbers or bad numbers, really, but it does display that there are people who are not doing the right thing and that this authority is identifying and putting conditions around them. Certainly I have had complaints to my office about contractors who were not doing the right thing. Again, it is nearly invariably in the horticultural industry during the fruit-picking season.
This legislation, I think, really picks up on the issues that are of concern, and it goes to creating a fairer and safer workplace for staff who are working under a contractor. It makes contractors behave in the same manner as employers and creates an even playing field for everyone and a safer environment for employees. The bill makes sure that the host employer and the contractor will take joint responsibility for safety on a worksite. It forces them to work together to ensure that their workplace is safe for the labour hire employees. This is a vital part of the legislation for workers and especially for vulnerable workers. In many cases the workers that we see in the Goulburn Valley and all along the Murray River in those fruit-growing areas over the summer period when fruit is being picked are vulnerable because many of them have overstayed visas. They are sort of called ‘illegals’ in a way because they are not really entitled to be there, but they form the backbone of the fruit-picking industry at particular times. In a time like this I think it is even more important that we recognise them as a group of people because of the needs they will have right now and over the next few months in terms of getting access to vaccination, and I will come back to that in a minute.
We will have a shortage of workers this harvest season because we do not have our usual surge of backpackers that in other years we have had and so enjoyed having. The backpackers really come into our communities and they create an atmosphere of—I do not know. We see them in our supermarkets, we see them camping on camping grounds. They enjoy a lot of the activities of the town, and of course they contribute to the economy of our towns and city in the areas they work in. So without this workforce that we are used to there is going to be enormous pressure put on our local and overseas workers who are currently here, and it is really important that we do ramp up the health response for these people—that they can be safe as they are working on farms and in other environments in our regional areas in the coming year. We want the Goulburn Valley, and indeed all of Australia, to be an attractive place to work for all potential horticultural workers, and we need to ensure that they have the best health and safety standards that are available to them, because we want to be able to continue to attract them into the future.
The federal government has established a Pacific Islander workforce project that has been operating for a number of years, and we have thousands of Pacific Islanders here in Australia at the moment, most of whom were here before COVID struck. They would have gone home to their families, to their islands, and they have not been able to. There are very significant social problems that exist in many of our communities in northern Victoria and southern New South Wales because of the isolation they are suffering from their families. They have not been able to get on a plane and go back to Samoa or Vanuatu or their other home islands. It should be remembered that their needs are great when we are talking about these issues.
It also then leads onto the issue of the need for quarantine for workers coming in from other places as some hopefully get to go home as they need to. We are still in a position where an adequate quarantine solution for horticultural workers that will be needed this year has not been found. I am looking forward to the opportunity of speaking with the minister about that in a meeting to really try and address what should happen. Clearly quarantine has always been a federal government issue. The federal government has now introduced agriculture visas. There are some opportunities to actually bring people in, but nothing seems to have been done at a federal level, and I am just not sure where the state is at on this issue. I think it is really important that it is addressed very quickly, because we are only a very short period away from seeing the beginning of our fruit harvest.
I think, really importantly and before closing, with the current COVID situation we do need to be aware of these significant groups of people who are not in the system—thousands of them, I am told. People have made representations to me about what we are going to do about their health and safety over the next few months. Of course, these are people who fly under the radar. They do not want to be identified. They do not have a Medicare card. They do not want to be registered on any federal government system, but we want them vaccinated. Our communities need to have them vaccinated. And so this is a serious occupational health and safety issue that does need to be addressed, and I will be raising this with the Minister for Health—I hope he is listening now—just to really highlight the fact that this is an issue that we cannot overlook in regional areas as the weeks roll out and everyone else is being encouraged in a really strong way to get vaccinated.
I say just in my last few moments that many in our horticultural industry are terrific employers. They are generally the bigger operations. They provide good accommodation. They get workers who come back to them year after year because they are good employers and they so value the good employees that come back to them each year. So there is this situation where there is real recognition and respect on both sides of the value of good employees, and issues around their safety and their health are particularly important and they are recognised. I think we all know that it is just a few people who bring an industry into disrepute. Unfortunately we do have unscrupulous contractors and they do do the wrong thing, and very often they are people from the community that is being exploited. That is really unfortunate because it really behoves them to not behave like that and to ensure that their workers are looked after properly.