Tabling and consideration of committee reports
01 September 2021
[by video link] As the Chair of the Select Committee on Temporary Migration, it is my pleasure to speak to the report on the occasion of its tabling today. The Select Committee on Temporary Migration was established by the Senate on 5 December 2019. Its mandate was to inquire into and report on the impact temporary migration has on the Australian economy and on wages and jobs, social cohesion, and workplace rights and conditions.
With international borders closed, COVID-19 has exposed the dependency of our economy on temporary migration. Prior to the global pandemic, Australia was home to the second-largest temporary migrant workforce in the OECD. There was significant and growing evidence of exploitation and wage theft in sectors with high levels of temporary migrant workers. This exploitation was facilitated by the vulnerability of their temporary status, the lack of workplace protections and their inability to assert their workplace rights.
Over the course of the past two years, the committee has received 131 submissions from individuals, community groups, peak bodies, businesses, unions and a myriad of other stakeholders. In these submissions, the committee heard from those with all manner of life experience, but there is one story that rings true through almost every one of them, and that is the story of a broken system which is failing to deliver for those that need it to.
Over the course of the past two years, we’ve heard of temporary visa worker exploitation, of wage theft and of physical abuse and sexual abuse. We’ve heard of visa processing times stretching not just into the months but into the years and of a systemic lack of communication from the Department of Home Affairs to visa applicants. We’ve heard of farmers who are struggling to access the labour that they need to meet their demands in harvest periods and of their frustration at navigating visa programs and the bureaucracy surrounding Australia’s various labour schemes. We’ve heard from communities suffering from the social effects of transient workforces, desperate to offer temporary migrants permanent opportunities to settle but unable to do so, an all too common tale in regional areas.
These voices, heard throughout the 131 submissions and 10 individual hearings over the past two years, have told us that Australia’s temporary migration program and its migration program more generally are in desperate need of reform. These voices deserve to be heard, and it is in this report that we seek not just to tell the stories of those behind the voices but also to offer positive solutions to that which ails them and the nation at large.
Informed by expert testimony and firsthand accounts from witnesses, the recommendations contained in this report, all told coming to 40 in number, offer a bold yet sensible vision for the future of Australia’s migration program. Part of that vision is for a comprehensive review of Australia’s visa system to be undertaken by the government, with the objective of achieving greater simplification and improving usability.
Time and time again the committee heard in submissions and testimony of the complex nature of our visa system—subclasses upon subclasses and endless mountains of paperwork. It was this theme of complexity that the committee encountered repeatedly in evidence that was received—complexity for visa applicants, for employer participants of the Seasonal Worker Program and the Pacific Labour Scheme, and for those who suffered wrong getting the help they need and the justice they deserve.
I am pleased to say that the report includes recommendations to address all of these matters. Further, the committee recommends that more resources be provided to our hardworking public servants in the Department of Home Affairs to give them what they need to improve assessment times and communication with applicants. Under the visa system envisaged by this report, applying for a visa would be straightforward and assessments would be conducted in a timely and transparent manner.
Skill shortages, where they may be suspected of occurring, will be assessed and declared by an independent body incorporating the voices of government, industry and unions. Australians will always have the first opportunity to fill job openings—as they should—through a refocusing of our migration on permanency. Those who do come here for work will have the ability to stay and to contribute should they wish to. As the pandemic has shown us, Australia’s reliance on millions of guest workers is no longer sustainable, not that it ever was.
Gone is the ’88 days a slave’ requirement of the Working Holiday Maker program. Farmers who need labour, where the labour cannot be sourced domestically, can access this through the Seasonal Worker Program or the Pacific Labour Scheme. These are workers who we know are more productive and are afforded more protections from those who do the wrong thing. Should these recommendations be adopted as I hope they will, if found to be exploiting workers those dodgy operators and hire companies not only will have a revamped and empowered Fair Work inspectorate holding them to account but also will be prohibited from employing temporary visa workers into the future.
Those who spoke to our committee told us that they were fed up with report after report, bandaid solutions and a lack of systemic improvement. These recommendations are that systemic improvement. They constitute a suite of solutions to persistent problems that will improve the temporary migration program and make it work for Australia. Migration is a key economic lever that can help the Australian economy, and if we get the migration settings right we can encourage economic growth and ensure that no Australian worker is left behind.
Temporary migration has a very important role to play in areas where we cannot skill up Aussies quickly enough to meet demand. That is why we need to reset our migration program to meet the unprecedented economic challenges that we are currently facing.
Australia is a nation built by migrants just like my parents, who came here from Italy. We can remain the successful multicultural nation that we are, but only if we use migration to assist Australia’s economic recovery and enable migrants to have a pathway to permanency. That is important.
I’m disappointed that as a result of the pandemic we as a committee didn’t get to visit all the places in Australia that we hoped to. While we were fortunate to hold a number of hearings outside of Canberra, I would have liked to have spent more time in regional Australia, speaking to locals in their communities. Nonetheless, I sincerely thank those who made the effort to dial into our hearings to provide their testimony to us, as I thank all those who made contributions to the committee either in person or in written form.
I’d like to place on the record my thanks to fellow committee members Deputy Chair Senator Chandler and Senator Walsh. Throughout the course of our inquiry, proceedings of the committee were conducted in a very cooperative manner. Lastly, thanks must also go to the secretariat, without whom this report would not have been delivered, and to Bastian, in my office, for his advice.
To the government: I hope that you recognise the value of this report and consider it seriously, with all the recommendations contained within it. These recommendations represent a balanced assessment of the needs of our community. Our migration program and the temporary migrants specifically are important to our community and our economy, and it is time that we all worked together to make sure that this program is everything it needs to be to guarantee our nation’s future prosperity. I commend the report to the chamber.