When it comes to dodgy schemes, the Morrison Government has one hell of a rap sheet.
And on the eve of a federal election, they’re at it again. Scott Morrison’s Government is trying to establish a new Agriculture Visa for migrant workers which would once again lock in a culture of underpayment and exploitation of migrant workers in Australia.
As reported by Ben Schneiders in the Nine Newspapers, out of the 11 of the labour hire companies that have been approved for the Agriculture Visa scheme, at least three – Agri Labour, Sim Fresh and MADEC – have rotten records on labour rights.
The Visa is being pushed by The National Party to provide a reservoir of temporary overseas labour from Southeast Asia to work in industries such as fisheries, forestry, meat processing and agriculture.
A Senate inquiry examined and exposed widespread wage theft, worker abuse and exploitation, as well as appalling residential and work conditions suffered by temporary migrant workers.
Already, the mistreatment of these workers has prompted the Vanuatu government to launch an inquiry into the seasonal worker program in Australia after testimonies came forward from Vanuatu workers during the parliamentary hearing.
Yet rather than punish the worst offenders, the Government is set to reward them with further contracts.
ACTU President Michele O’Neil said temporary migrant workers who have been dependant on their employers to do the right thing have been too easily exploited.
The new visa scheme was an “ill-thought-out knee-jerk reaction” to claims of labour shortages, she said.
“And what we know is even the schemes that have the highest so-called standard of protections are routinely subjected to extreme forms of worker exploitation. So, here was a government that had not cleaned up the existing problem,” she said.
“Instead of cleaning it up, they decided to, in fact, introduce a scheme that has less protection. And they tout this as the reason that they’re doing it,” Ms O’Neil said.
The Australian Workers Union (AWU) is one of a number of Unions that represents and advocates for workers in the agricultural sector. AWU National Organising Director Shane Roulstone told On the Job that anyone approved to import workers should be reputable operators.
“Approved employers who are going to be involved in the proposed Agriculture Visa should have a good reputation and be known for doing the right thing. They need to be decent employers that look after their workers,” he said.
“We’re of a view that those companies like Sim Fresh and MADEC are not what you’d call good employers.”
“We’re not convinced there’s a need for a specific Agriculture Visa in the first place. If you were to have one, why would you have one with employers who have got dodgy track records and have been for fined worker abuse?” Mr Roulstone said.
Roulstone is quick to point out that the Government – mindful of some of the shocking testimony at a Senate Inquiry into visa worker exploitation – has included some guard rails for workers in the trial scheme for the Visa. But they will soon disappear, leaving workers open to further exploitation.
“They’ve refused to commit to ongoing protections once the trial is over,” Mr Roulstone said.
“You’re going to have more worker exploitation, more workers being underpaid, more workers waiting at bus stops with $100 to get them through the next couple of weeks before their flight home.”
The existing Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme at least has some protections for vulnerable workers, Roulstone said. But there doesn’t seem to be much use for a new scheme which offers even fewer protections for workers.
He noted there are many decent employers in the sector whose reputations are sullied by the behaviour of bad employers, and who find themselves undercut by shady operators.
At least under PALM, Roulstone explained, there is a requirement for approved employees to be vetted and reviewed. These employees are also required to keep their costs reasonable for accommodation and transport.
“Not the outrageous costs that some were charging – like $160 a head for a bed in an eight [person] dorm room in a backpackers’ hostel,” he said.
“We want to protections where the department could actually go and check on the accommodation.”
“We want protections where those particular workers are able to be educated about their rights at work, where those workers have some engagement with the community, where that’s tied into their working arrangements, where they can actually engage in their faith.”
“None of that’s proposed in the Agriculture Visa,” Mr Roulstone said.
And although the immediate focus of the scheme is on the fisheries, forestry, meat processing and agriculture industries, there aren’t any restrictions to sectors where these Visa workers can go, meaning these problems could spread to almost any other industry.
Michele O’Neil is urging swift action to deal with the exploitation perpetrated by dodgy employers in the sector.
Not only is it a poor scheme, it’s friendless as well, with countries in the region reluctant to sign on.
“So far they [the government] seem to have failed completely to have any countries sign on,” Ms O’Neil said.