The Victorian Government says it will begin an inquiry into labour exploitation in the second half of the year, after a report by the ABC’s Four Corners program detailed widespread abuses of the 417 visa.
Victoria’s Minister for Industrial Relations Natalie Hutchins said the inquiry would seek to crack down on unscrupulous labour hire practices.
“We’re just in the process of putting some terms of reference together and putting a committee together to actually do the investigation,” she said.
“We’re hoping to get some pretty quick outcomes around how we can actually regulate probably some of the worst labour hire practices that we’ve seen in a long time.
“The inquiry will look at and investigate recommendations for the best possible form of regulation.
“We need to get the message out loud and clear that every unethical labour contractor that’s operating needs to know that these activities won’t be tolerated in Victoria.”
West Australian Labor senator Sue Lines, the chair of a Senate inquiry also examining the visas, said the Federal Department of Employment knew of a jump in complaints from workers months before the revelations of abuse were exposed by Four Corners.
She said the department revealed a 40 per cent spike in complaints back in February, but no action was taken.
“Certainly at the last round of Senate estimates in February of this year the Department of Employment indicated to me … that they were concerned about the increased number of complaints they’d had from 417 working holiday visa makers,” she said.
“They indicated to the Senate that there were particular vulnerabilities related to people on 417 visas, and that they believed there were practices going on that required active scrutiny.
“Now I guess what does concern me greatly is that in February the department said this and now we have this Four Corners program bringing absolute evidence to light.”
Senator Lines said the evidence uncovered in the report would be examined in the forthcoming inquiry.
“For people to be saying that there’s slave labour in this country is a very strong statement and a very alarming statement to be making,” she said.
“I would certainly want the inquiry that I’ll be chairing through the Senate to be hearing evidence to that and to … do whatever’s required to stop that.
“I’ve seen some of the submissions that are coming in for the inquiry and certainly those are alarming to say the least.
“And really the Government’s got to take notice and act. We don’t want to have a massive catastrophe occur here before we act.
“The evidence is there and in fact the evidence was there in February.”
Head of Queensland group calls for undercover taskforce
Allan Mahoney, the head of Queensland horticulture group Bundaberg Fruit and Vegetable Growers, has backed calls for an undercover taskforce to crack down on the exploitation of foreign workers.
He said inspectors had been in the region twice in the past few years.
“The amount of compliance within the region is great, we’re very heartened to see that there are compliant growers, compliant contractors,” he said.
“It’s just disheartening when you’ve got these fly-by-night companies coming through that have got no care and no interest in the region.”
Mr Allen added that there was not enough enforcement, and more funding was needed.
“There’s no follow-up, there’s no back-up unfortunately,” he said.
“Within the region we’ve got some great people doing the right job but you just see these companies open up overnight … you can shut them down one minute and they are up the next.
“There’s evidence of that within the region.”
Rural lobby group Growcom is set to meet Queensland growers accused of exploiting workers, saying growers need to be made aware of their legal obligations.
“I think the reality is that some of those pressures are growing increasingly and exponentially and are causing some of our growers cause to be tempted into some of these arrangements, but of course we don’t excuse that,” Growcom’s Donna Mogg said.
“The reality is that these people are vital to our industry and we want to encourage workers into our industry, not out of our industry.”
Queensland MP Keith Pitt has called for a national taskforce to investigate labour hire contractors.
Anyone with further information can contact Four Corners.