The inquiry of the Select Committee on Temporary Migration was a valuable opportunity to explore numerous issues and hear different perspectives on Australia’s temporary migration program. There are undoubtedly reforms and improvements which can be made to current arrangements to increase the system’s flexibility and responsiveness, reduce the potential for migrant worker exploitation, adapt to changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and ensure key sectors such as the agriculture and horticulture industries have the workforces they need to support critical food production.
Government Senators acknowledge the efforts of Committee members and the Committee secretariat to conduct an in-depth investigation and produce a detailed report. During the 46th Parliament there have already been a number of comprehensive reviews of Australia’s visa system by the Joint Standing Committee for Migration. The Government has implemented a significant number of changes in response to these recommendations, has recently announced its intention to implement a new Agricultural Worker Visa, and has publicly released an exposure draft of the Migration Amendment (Protecting Migrant Workers) Bill. Government Senators support both initiatives, which will address many of the issues raised in the inquiry and majority report.
Government Senators note that the top priority for the Australian Government should continue to be supporting and increasing employment opportunities for Australian citizens and residents. Wherever possible, industries and businesses should focus on employing Australians and, where there are workforce shortages, seek to work with all levels of government to develop skills development programs and career pathways to ensure, as far as possible, there is a pipeline of local employees available to fill positions.
However, the Committee heard clear evidence that in certain industries, it is simply not possible to operate without the assistance of migrant workers. As the National Skills Commission regularly reports, Australia has ongoing skills needs which cannot be met from citizens and residents. This is particularly the case in industries which require large, seasonal workforces; as well as those industries and businesses located in regional and remote areas where it is harder to attract Australians to relocate to for work. Accordingly, maintaining confidence in temporary migration systems is essential for our economy and the ongoing creation of Australian jobs.
Government Senators agree that the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) and the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS) are important and well supported programs, which should continue to play a primary role in supporting agricultural businesses to maintain their workforces. Government should continue to ensure confidence and integrity in these programs by identifying and sanctioning the small minority of business participants which do not properly comply with the scheme requirements.
We further note the recent announcement that the Government will be creating a new Agricultural Worker Visa to complement the SWP and PLS and ensure an appropriate workforce is available for agricultural producers. Government Senators believe that this Visa should be designed with these principles in mind:
Positions should be filled by Australians wherever possible and practical;
The Agricultural Visa program should provide an effective and efficient workforce solution to link employers to low-skilled, semi-skilled and skilled overseas workers;
In circumstances where individuals have come to Australia on the proposed Visa to meet a workforce need and have demonstrated that they are providing an ongoing benefit to their employer and local community, the program should provide a pathway to permanent residency;
The design of the Agricultural Visa program should ensure that the program allows small-to-medium-sized employers in agricultural industries to be matched with intending migrants who have the skills and attributes to fill specific positions which employers have been unable to find Australians to fill. It should not be a mechanism to bypass Australian workers, or be seen as the ‘easiest’ or ‘cheapest’ solution to filling workforce needs.
Administration of visa processing
Government Senators agree that Australia’s visa processing system should be reviewed and simplified to ensure that visa processing times are reduced and that the system is more user-friendly for applicants and employers.
The Committee heard that long processing times and a lack of transparency once an application has been lodged causes unnecessary frustration for both applicants and employers.
Government Senators agree that protections against exploitation of migrant workers should be further strengthened. The Department of Home Affairs has released an exposure draft of the Migration Amendment (Protecting Migrant Workers) Bill 2021 for public consultation. Securing the successful passage of this legislation is the important next step in preventing exploitation of Migrant Workers, which has been a strong focus for the Government in recent years.
The Department notes that the intention of the Bill:
…is to send a strong message to unscrupulous employers and labour hire intermediaries that the exploitation of migrant workers as cheap labour is not acceptable. It is not only unfair to migrant workers, and to those employers who seek to do the right thing, but it also damages Australia’s reputation as a destination of choice. The Bill also seeks to send a strong message to temporary migrant workers that the Government is committed to combatting migrant worker exploitation, supporting them to feel more confident and secure about working in Australia.
Government Senators do not agree with the majority report’s Industrial Relations proposals, which seek to further Labor’s political agenda and increase union influence and power inappropriately.
The Fair Work Ombudsman, as the independent regulator, has been provided with significant funding of $160 million for its activities, including compliance and enforcement, resulting in successful recovery of more than $445 million in wages for workers. The FWO also has an important educative and advice function and this should continue.
We note that the Government has initiated a number of legislative reforms to protect workers in this session of parliament, including a number of proposals which the Labor Party voted against.
Senator Clair Chandler
Liberal Party Senator for Tasmania
Senator Andrew Bragg
Liberal Party Senator for New South Wales