Labor's priority should be to get Aussie workers into quality jobs that pay well and are secure

Stephen_Jones-135_panorma.jpgThe simple proposition before the House is this: that if an employer or another wants to come to the government and say, 'We require access to a particular type of visa which was designed to address labour market and skill shortages,' then they must be required to demonstrate to the Commonwealth, the government and the minister that there is a shortage and that there is no local worker who is ready, willing and able to fill that position. That is a very simple proposition. When stated like that, you find it very difficult to disagree with the proposition.

Is it any wonder that in their contributions to the debate today the opposition have not addressed the proposition? In fact, they have stooped to their normal cant of casting aspersions on the motives behind those who bring the proposition before the House—their allegiances, their friendships and their former employment, and even their country of birth. But do they address the question before the House? No, they do not. The question before the House is a very simple one and it should enjoy the support of all members in the chamber. I will be very surprised if it does not.

A couple of weeks ago, the member for Batman gave a speech in this House. He described it as his first and last speech as a backbencher. It was a speech that enjoyed applause from around the House. He said something that really stuck in my mind. He said that his priority and the priority of any Labor government should be to get Australian workers into quality jobs that pay well and are secure, and to use that as a vehicle to lift their standards of living. He said that had been the driving force behind all of his work in public life.

That is a statement and proposition which I wholeheartedly agree with. To achieve that you need to have a strong economy. You need to have effective markets, you need to intervene in those markets where they do not deliver fair and just outcomes. That is why we have awards and collective agreements. That is why we have workplace regulation.

But in 2013 Australia stands above just about every other advanced economy in the world. We have strong growth, we have low unemployment, we have low inflation, we have strong public finances and we have quality public services. It is not unique in the last 150 years that Australia has relied on the skills and capacity of workers from overseas to build our cities, to man our factories and to staff our hospitals, surgeries and offices. The region that I come from has the steelworks, just like the steelworks and the metal industries around the country—Whyalla, Port Kembla. On any day you walk into any of the departments within the BlueScope steelworks and you find workers from just about every country on earth. The Snowy Mountains Scheme was built relying quite heavily on the skills and capacity of workers from around the world. If you drive past the Kingsford Smith airport in Sydney you see the residue of the market gardens that once were extensive throughout that region, providing a food supply to the people of Sydney for over a hundred years and owned and operated by workers from overseas. There are the auto workers of Geelong. The examples could go on and on.

It is clear that the wealth and prosperity that we rely on today and that we are so proud of as Australians have been built on the efforts, achievements, skills and capacities of workers who have come from all around the world. Of course, these have not always been glorious episodes. The exploitation of bonded labour is one that stands out. But generally speaking, the workers have come from other countries. They have made a fantastic contribution where we have embraced them for what they have brought to the country that they have helped to build.

The temporary skilled visa was a further iteration in this 150 years of skilled migration coming to this country. I do not know if it has been mentioned in this debate. The history of the temporary skilled visa which we now refer to as the 457 visa has its history in the Roach report, commissioned by the Keating government, relying on the input, the skills and the knowledge in consultation with key businesspeople. The recommendations of the report were many, but in part they identified the need to address skill shortages in the short term by introducing a new class of visa and over the long term by investing more money in skills and training of our domestic workforce. The visa was not introduced by the Keating government.

After the 1996 election the Howard government introduced the first 457 class of visa. It has been in existence in that statute ever since. It is designed to help businesses which are struggling to find skilled workers locally to sponsor workers from overseas so that those businesses and the economy as a whole can continue to grow in a tight labour market. Like most schemes of this type, they must continue to be monitored and adjusted as circumstances change and weaknesses emerge.

We have identified three weaknesses. The first is a lack of a requirement to test the local labour market. Indeed, when I have spoken to people in my electorate—in fact, when I have spoken to many men and women in the press gallery and to others—they have been quite surprised by the fact that there is not a requirement on an employer who seeks access to the 457 scheme to test the local labour market. Perhaps that is the reason that in a recent survey and report by the Migration Council they found that over 15 per cent of employers surveyed said that they probably could find locals to fill the jobs but were applying for 457 visas and simply did not try.

I make no criticism of the employers for accessing something that is a legal entitlement to them, but I am more than a little bit critical of the fact that they have not at least attempted to engage with the local workers—particularly when I reflect upon my own electorate, which has consistently had since the late 1980s unemployment rates two per cent above the national average. When you focus on certain suburbs, the statistics are above that. When you look at youth unemployment, the statistics are above that again.

The message has to be quite simple: if we want skilled workers not just now but in five years time and if we want skilled tradespeople not just now but in five years time, we have to have the mechanisms in place which encourage employers and workers to put on apprentices and trainees to ensure that we are able to fill those skills shortages not just now but in the future. Today's commitment to putting in place apprentices and trainees ensures that we do not need to rely on schemes like the 457 scheme so heavily into the future.

The second issue that has been identified is the potential to exploit the precarious nature of a 457 visa worker, including paying below the market rates and the continuity of employment. Put quite simply: if somebody's tenure not only within the workplace but within a country is reliant on their continuous employment with that employer then their bargaining power within that workplace is less than that of any other worker within that workplace.

The third issue we have identified as a weakness within the scheme is something I have already addressed: the requirement to meet training obligations that are conditional upon the granting of the 457 visa. We never heard much about this from the member for Canning or any of the other speakers that I have tuned into.

When pointed out like that, it is a fairly simple proposition. Test the local labour market and prove that there is no current local worker who is ready, willing and able to fill that vacancy. Having engaged a worker on a 457 visa, ensure that you meet the conditions of that visa, ensure that they are paid market rates and are treated fairly in the workplace and ensure that you are meeting the training requirements.

There is a good reason why the member for Canning and others did not reflect too heavily upon these propositions within the amendment before the House: their record on this particular issue is not very good. Under the Howard government we saw significant abuses within the scheme. Between 2003 and 2006 we know that over 30 per cent of all 457 visas granted were below the minimum gazetted rate. We heard the member for Canning just now, in response to a question put by the member for Scullin, saying that he has always supported workers being paid the market rate. Under their watch that was not what was occurring. Over 30 per cent of the workers who were engaged under the 457 class of visas were being paid at below the minimum gazetted rate. I want to make the point that that is not the minimum market rate; it is the minimum gazetted rate. So you had two classes of workers within a workplace and the exploitation of workers on this class of visas. Inspections between 2002 and 2003—and these are reports conducted under the former government—of over 2,400 work sites showed that around 27 per cent of those employers who had people engaged under those schemes were breaching the conditions of the visa.

I can understand why the member for Canning and others on that side of the House say, 'Nothing to see here; move on.' The reason they make that submission is that their track record in this area is not very good at all. It is why they are so anxious not to address the central proposition which is before the House. That central proposition is: if there is a local worker who is ready, willing and able to fill a vacancy an employer needs to fill then they should be given first crack at that job.

You could be forgiven for thinking, on listening to the contributions of the shadow minister and others after him, that Australia was somehow operating on a folly, out on its own doing something which is completely out of step with similar countries around the world. I inform the House that not four weeks ago in the Canadian parliament the Prime Minister of Canada stood up and said they needed to amend their class of visa, which operates in the same way as our 457 visa scheme, for the very same reasons that we have identified here. The Canadian prime minister, more closely aligned to those on the conservative side of politics than ours, had this to say: if there are local workers who can fill a vacancy, they should be given first crack at the job before employers go to the Canadian government and seek to bring in workers from overseas to fill that vacancy. He was supported in that proposition by the then Governor of the Bank of Canada, the central bank of Canada, who made a public speech supporting the same proposition. So, far from this being some harebrained proposition dreamt up as some conspiracy in a cave, this is a proposition which is in step with all other countries around the world.

I make this final proposition. For those opposite to sit on that side of the House and bag other countries, talk about humanitarian debacles in countries like Malaysia, whip up fear about foreign investment in this country, run the most humungous scare about refugees in this country and then turn to this side of the House and talk about introducing xenophobia into the debate is, I have to say, about the richest thing that I have heard in my time in this place.