9 October 2019


RAFF CICCONE, SENATOR FOR VICTORIA: Well, thanks for coming today, and I’m really honoured that Kristina Keneally has been able to come down today to Shepparton. I’m also joined here with my colleague Lisa Chester’s the Federal Member for Bendigo. I’ve invited Kristina and Lisa today to come and talk to local traders and farmers, as well as business owners, and talk with other members in the community to discuss about people who’ve been exploited in the workplace, predominately those in farmland. 

For a while now, under this Government – in fact, for over six years now under the Liberal Government, what we have found that that – the system of our immigration system here, people are coming through our airplanes, and through the airports. There’s an exploitation of these workers who, quite frankly, the Government has done nothing for six years, put their head in the sand, and what we’re trying to do through these roundtables, which we kicked off earlier this year in August – Kristina hosted a round table up at Parliament House to talk to stakeholders about how we can address the issue of exploitation of our workers on farmland.

We will obviously hear today from a range of stakeholders, whether it be from the Labour Trade Council, to the Victorian Farmers Federation, and other relevant stakeholders here today, including from what the work that Kristina Keneally has done over the last six to 12 months in her role as Shadow Minister for Home Affairs. And no doubt Lisa Chesters as well, too, has obviously had a number of years of experience talking to local stakeholders here in not just the Bendigo area, but also in Shepparton, and country Victoria as well, too.

So, I’m really pleased that Kristina has been able to come down today to talk to a range of stakeholders to work out how we can actually better understand why is it that workers are being exploited, and how we can also support a number of our businesses who rely on people to not just pick fruit, but also to help the horticulture and agriculture sectors here in Victoria. So, I’m really pleased that you’re here today, Kristina. So, thank you again for coming.

LISA CHESTERS MP, MEMBER FOR BENDIGO: So, this is an issue – the exploitation of temporary visa workers is an issue throughout all of north and central Victoria, and being the Federal Member for Bendigo, our council has been working closely with the Shepparton Council, with growers, with producers in the region about the problem of exploited workers, and there’s a real frustration amongst employers. They want a stable workforce.

Shepp is a multicultural community, very proud to have people move here, but then they find out their backstory about how they got to be here, and we’re learning weekly about the exploitation of some of these workers that come here. And quite often, it’s the employers, it’s the farmers, it’s the community, and it’s the workers themselves that are left to kind of really struggle and scramble to make – to help people out. We’ve heard from faith leaders locally that over the winter they put a call out for blankets, because they’ve got people – 15 in a home – brought here by labour hire, living in terrible conditions – freezing – because it’s not what they’re used to, they can’t afford the heating, the labour hire company won’t turn the heating on for them or pay the bills.

So, we’re expecting today, and hoping today, for some really practical solutions. This is Ground Zero. Senator Kristina Keneally, Labor Shadow Spokesperson for Home Affairs – so quite a high-profile leader within the labour movement – here to learn firsthand about the challenges throughout regional Victoria. Communities who just want Federal leadership that we’re not seeing. Lot of rhetoric from the Government; lot of talk about regional migration, yet we’re getting further away from permanent skilled opportunities for people to live here. We’re now talking about undocumented workers who are being treated like a second-class citizen – horrible exploitation. And I’m really proud that so many organizations have come together today in Shepp to talk about a north and central regional solution, so that we can put forward some practical suggestions.

Nobody wants to see anybody exploited, and it’s just so frustrating that the Government’s not listening. So welcome to Shepp, Kristina, and, you know, what you’ll hear today is just so common of all of central and northern Victoria.

KRISTINA KENEALLY, DEPUTY LABOR LEADER IN THE SENATE AND SHADOW MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS: Thank you all. Thank you to Raff and to Lisa for inviting me here today to be part of this roundtable. Let’s be clear about what’s happening. This year in Australia, we are on track to have the largest number of asylum claims ever lodged in Australia’s history, and that is because this Government has failed to notice that the people smugglers have changed their business model from boats to planes. And what happens when people come here on a plane? Well, Minister David Coleman will say there’s no problem because to quote him, ‘nobody dies on a plane’.

Well, is death really the only thing we care about? Because when these people come here they are forced to apply for asylum, often by the criminal syndicate that’s trafficked them in. They then are sent out to work in a range of industries, and today we’re here to talk about horticulture, but they are sent out by these labour hire companies to work in horticulture, they are often working for as little as $4 an hour. Many of them have reported conditions that are close to slavery, some are subject to physical and sexual abuse. This is the development of an economic model that relies on exploited and low-paid workers, and it is a misuse, it is an abuse, of our asylum-seeking process. 

Now, it is an important right to be able to apply for asylum, but 90% the people who are coming through at our airports and do so are found not to be refugees. But these four year waits that they have for that to be determined is what the people smugglers are taking advantage of. That delay and processing – that blow-out in processing time – gives them the right to stay in the country, and that is when they are put into this exploitation in the workforce. I want to pay tribute today to the organisations who are here and who have been working alongside a growing coalition of people who are determined to find solutions to this situation. And that includes the growers themselves, it includes the farmers, it includes local government, the Greater Shepparton Council, it includes the trade unions, the migration agents – it is a wide and broad coalition who are here determined that we’re going to get some resolution to this situation. 

Last thing I will say is why should this matter to Australian families? Well, it should matter for a range of reasons. One, because when we bring people here, when we – sorry, when people are trafficked here and farmed out to work in horticulture and nail salons and hospitality, and in other industries, they are taking jobs that are not available to Australian people, and particularly Australian young people with high rates of youth unemployment. 

Two, when people are paid extremely low wages, that lowers the wages and conditions for all workers in the workforce. So, the development of an economy that relies on an exploited and low-paid workforce is actually detrimental. It is bad news for all of us.

And then lastly, I don’t think it is Australia notion of a fair go that we would have the fruit that is in our children’s lunch boxes picked by exploited migrant workers who are subject to slavery-like conditions and physical abuse. That is simply not the Australian way of life. And today here today, we’ve got great local regional representatives and Lisa Chesters and Raff Ciccone working alongside the growers, the farmers and local government determined to do what this Government failed to do, which is to find a solution to define the problem and find a solution.

JOURNALIST: When you use the word exploitation – can you describe to me exactly what that looks like for Northern Victorian communities in particularly, when we’re sitting here in the Fruit Bowl?

KENEALLY: We have had stories come forward in the last roundtable, and various unions have brought forward stories as well, about workers who had been sent to by a labour hire company to live in a house with two dozen people. They’re forced to pay for their own accommodation out of their wages, they are sometimes forced to pay for the transport to get to work, to the point that they are charged for everything.

So, they no longer are receiving a wage. They are only receiving a couple of dollars an hour. They often will have their passport taken off of them. One story we heard – I heard directly from a worker was how the labour hire company came in and stole all his belongings during the day while he was out to work, and then forced him to buy his own belongings back.

We have had stories of women who have been subject to sexual abuse because they’re in isolated circumstances, and they’re vulnerable by the people who are housing them, paying them, feeding them and then forcing them to work and then forcing them to be available for sexual and other exploitation. This is simply a grotesque way to run an economy. It is not what most Australians would recognise as the Australian fair go, and the fact that this Government so flippantly says there’s not a problem here when their own Member for Mallee Dr. Anne Webster has described this as a crisis for the horticulture industry. When their own Assistant Minister Jason Wood said last year in a Migration Committee report that criminal syndicates and illegal labour hire companies are trafficking people out here and abusing the asylum-seeking system. And indeed, when the – their own Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Science had a report last week pointing to the fact that the horticulture industry was too exposed to a monopoly by labour companies that are relying on an exploited workforce.

The evidence is here. We’re here today to hear what’s happening in local – on the ground locally, and what we can do to help resolve this situation and move to a circumstance where we have a workforce that is appropriately paid, appropriately safeguarded, where jobs are available for Australians, and where we are relying on temporary workers in a circumstance where there is a definite and clearly-defined shortage.

JOURNALIST: Does Labor support the creation of an amnesty for farmers who’ve been forced to hire these people to complete their, you know, fruit picking seasons on time?

KENEALLY: An amnesty in the sense of – in what way?

JOURNALIST: Well, if a farmer was to hire these people, and then potentially be prosecuted for hiring someone illegally?

KENEALLY: Well, in most circumstances, it’s not the farmers who are doing the hiring, it is the labour hire company. So the farmers – and they are represented here today – many of them are quite frustrated with the circumstance. We had one story at the last roundtable about a farmer who actually tried to hire the workers, and pay them the proper rates, and yet when he made that offer to the workers, the next day, only about half of them turned up because the rest of them were vulnerable to the labour hire company which had their papers or their visas or their passports, and they were unable to break free from the labour hire companies.

So there are – there have been suggestions that have come forward. They reflect having a national licensing scheme for labour hire companies. That is one potential solution. There are a range of solutions, and there’s no magic bullet here, but when it comes to the farmers, I would just point out that the National Farmers Federation and the Victorian Farmers Federation have been working with us to help us define the problem and come to some sensible solutions.

JOURNALIST: And does Labor support the reform of the visa system so that these people who are trapped in this grey labour market can have an easy solution to their visa status?

KENEALLY: There is a lot of discussion through these roundtables about whether we need an agriculture visa – a fit-for-purpose visa – and we’re quite open to those discussions, because what we do know is the Government’s corrupt approach to temporary migration – workforce migration – is very hodgepodge, hit and miss, and they seem to invent it every second week.

That is, the Government seems to come up with another visa, another idea. Every time the Prime Minister goes to another country, he seems to announce another 1500 or a couple thousand visas available for that population. What the Government needs to do is be clear about how they are using migration as an economic tool. It used to be the case in this country, even under John Howard, that we brought people in, we put them on a path to permanency, and we worked to avoid having, what Lisa described rightly, as a group of second class citizens.

What this government seems intent on doing is to build up a temporary workforce, concentrated in the regions, pay them lower wages, see wages and conditions driven down for everyone. That is not the Australia that most Australians would recognise – one where we are relying on a second class, second tier group of workers who are underpaid and exploited, and then often go on to become undocumented workers when their visa has expired. 

Yesterday, we saw Minister Coleman could not tell the nation’s media how many people had overstayed and were here now illegally after their appeal process and their application process for asylum was rejected.

CHESTERS: I’ve got a few other examples, if you want, just locally.

JOURNALIST: That would be great. 

CHESTERS: So, we’re about to hit the – we’re about to hit the fruit picking season, but the stories that came out from last year, quite often these workers not knowing what their rights were in Australia, were told “The first three or four bins you’re picking to pay back the labour hire company”. So you’re essentially working for free for your first three or four bins.

It’s piece rates, so quite often they’re told that the piece rate is less than – works out to be less than $1 an hour. So essentially, that first few hours of work, they’re not earning anything. The labour hire company will say it’s for the farmer; you talk to the farmer, and they go “No, no, no, we’ve paid the labour hire company”. It’s the middle person that’s really creaming off the top.

Between Shepp and Bendigo, there’s a lot of tomato growing and fruit picking, and quite often they’ll charge them anywhere from $15 to $30 a day to travel on an overcrowded bus. And you know, they scare the hell out of them when it comes to immigration. Quite often, you know, we hear from local farmers, or even the local Trades and Labor Council, where a worker will turn up and say, “Can you help me get out? Can you help me get out of this situation?” 

Whether they be people who have claimed asylum, knowing that they’re going to struggle to get that up, whether they be backpackers who really just want to stay in this country an extra year, or they be undocumented workers. Sometimes they just rock up to say, “I’m feeling really unsafe and can I get out”, and locals know that. They see what happens at the local supermarket, they see what happens at the local caravan park. It’s not right what’s going on, and the good growers know that they’re being out-priced by the people who are deliberately undercutting them by not paying people properly.