Labour Hire Licensing Repeal Bill

Second Reading

I wish to thank members for their contributions to this debate. Some were lively, some entertaining, some less helpful, some significant and some that I thought were going to cause some health problems for some of the contributors. Nevertheless, I am pleased to see that those sitting immediately adjacent to me are still alive.

There are a couple of matters I wish to raise. Firstly, there was a statement made by the member for Lee in his contribution. As members know, this is a bill to repeal the act, and he referred to the question of whether the bill could be, should be or was intended to be amended. As I think I have previously explained to the house, that issue was considered by the government and was seen to be an inadequate resolution of this matter. Therefore, we have proposed that the whole of the act be repealed. In his contribution, the member for Lee says:

It is funny I should raise that because I am advised that when the opposition was briefed on this bill the officers who provided that briefing admitted that there were amendments that had been drafted in order to make sure that this regime was doing exactly what was intended and nothing more…

I want to point out that the briefing offered was with the Hon. Mr Maher (Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council, spokesperson on consumer matters and shadow attorney-general), his adviser, my adviser and Mr Dini Soulio, who is the Commissioner for Consumer and Business Services. I do not know what other officers he is referring to, but I am advised that Mr Soulio confirmed that, in the event that the bill was not repealed, in his opinion it would need a lot of amendment. That is not what the member has said: namely, that there was some kind of secret preparation of amendments for the purpose of progressing this bill.

I am just correcting the record on what I have been informed by the commissioner, and I just want to confirm to the house that no amendments have been prepared or considered by the government in respect of this bill. We categorically reject that this bill is amendable.

We have had a flurry of contributions on the philosophical basis upon which anyone is better at providing for the protection, safety and rights of workers. For the purpose of this debate, I accept that however inadequate some might present as a proposed regime of protection for workers, I do not think anyone here would accept that workers should be exploited, especially if they are in a vulnerable circumstance. They deserve to have protection of their wages, their entitlements, accommodation provisions and their leave, and they are entitled to work in a safe workplace.

I am not going to sit here and give a litany of cases where I think the former Labor government oversaw disgracefully unsafe workplaces in this state, including the much-publicised death of Mr Castillo-Riffo at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, or detail my conversations with Mr Cartledge, head of the CFMEU, about my concern that his union had failed to provide adequate, safe working conditions for that person.

What I will say is that we on this side of the house are keen to ensure that there is provision for those protections. We clearly say that this piece of legislation, passed under the previous government, does not do that. Whilst there has been some comment about the implementation of this from the member for Reynell—Reynell or Kaurna?

The fact is, though, in this state—although the bill was proclaimed and indeed regulations followed—not one single person has been registered under this new regime. I want to bring this important point to the attention of the house because whilst the commissioner received 121 applications immediately upon the commencement of the act from people who felt, even though they had raised concerns about being captured under this legislation, that they were obliged to put in their information, not one single person has been processed or registered.

Indeed, when the government made the announcement that it would be progressing this repeal bill, the commissioner indicated to the industry generally that he would not be accepting any further applications, and made a commitment that if the bill were repealed he would ensure that applicants were refunded their application fee. So there has not been any actual implementation in the establishment of a register that has therefore attracted the protections.

Under this legislation, the protections so offensive to those on this side of the house and to which we have attempted to move amendments were, in particular, the imprisonment clauses for labour hire operators. We see that as a backdoor attempt to deal with things such as industrial manslaughter. These are failed attempts that have been presented to this parliament many times before and they may be again. They will never have my support, and I still say that this attempt to place serious and significant imprisonment terms on employers in relation to these is completely unacceptable.

However, let us go to what the current protections are because I think it is important that the house is aware of them. First, there is the Work Health and Safety Act 2012 under SafeWork SA. Obviously, if a worker is at risk in any way there is a whole agency to provide investigative and prosecution actions in that regard. I realise that SafeWork SA has had a few problems, so much so that the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption conducted a review into it and highlighted very significant failings in relation to that agency.

I was responsible for it at the time of the change of government—it is now with the Hon. Mr Lucas—and I am pleased to say there have been very significant reforms. However, suffice to say that it had a lot of people who were clearly not up to the job. They were either inadequately skilled or unskilled people who failed utterly in what should have been successful prosecutions.

Secondly, there is the Return To Work Act 2014. Anyone caught providing false information can be fined up to $50,000 and, in that regard, imprisoned for two years already. We know that the South Australian Employment Tribunal and the many commissioners down there, in particular, are regularly processing applications for people who have been underpaid, who have not had their superannuation paid as well as other entitlements they have been unfairly, illegally denied and for which they have sought redress—as they should.

There is the Payroll Tax Act 2009 under RevenueSA. Obviously labour hire companies are liable to pay payroll tax relating to wages of all workers, and there are consequences if they do not. Importantly, there is also the Fair Work Act 2009 in the commonwealth under the Fair Work Ombudsman as well as, of course, the court structure to deal with, in particular, the Fair Work Act 2009.

When people talk about there being a lot of other laws, it is important to remember what those laws are, that they are there and that they are working now and are in fact providing protections to many people from many of the circumstances that have been raised in cases and even in stories contributed by the other side. I think the member for Reynell pointed out a case of obvious exploitation of a person who was employed in a host worker situation. I think she indicated that she advocated for this person, and I expect she would have been successful, I hope, in recovering whatever entitlement she had been unlawfully deprived of.

That is the purpose of ensuring that we have a court, an ombudsman and a structure: to ensure that we do protect workers in those circumstances. That is what is occurring. Regarding the task force that has been referred to by a member, I confirm that that task force was set up last year. I have referred to it. It comprises a number of the representatives of these agencies and it continues to sit and work.

One of the contributors suggested, rather dismissively I think, that all it does is share data. However, the reason why this is very important is that, if a particular employer fails to adequately pay somebody their wage, or does not pay the payroll tax they are obliged to pay, or does not provide for the safety, supervision or accommodation for a worker in those circumstances, it seems—and I think this is quite logical—that quite often they do not do multiple things.

So if they are treating an employee badly in relation to not giving them their correct wage, there is every possibility that they are also failing in their obligation under these other areas. It is important that those agencies work together, particularly if they identify an employer who is showing up as having alleged impropriety or misconduct in relation to multiple areas, and that that information be exchanged, because it assists them, for example, in a case where there are multiple exploitation claims (and if SafeWork SA are not already involved), to be able to attend the workplace and actually follow that through.

That is an important task force and it is continuing. It met again earlier this month, and under our proposal it will continue to operate. I am satisfied that that is an important initiative of the government, and we are committed to continuing it. I thank Mr Soulio for his work in undertaking the work to date. Can I also say that, during the course of consultation, I had the opportunity to receive advice from Mr Joe Szakacs, who I think is the chief secretary of SA Unions, now recently elected.

However he wants it pronounced, I am happy to do it because shortly we are to welcome him to this chamber. He may not be sworn in yet because the postal votes are not all in; nevertheless, there is every expectation that he will be the new member for Cheltenham. At the next week of sitting we will of course be welcoming both new members to the seats, for the full complement of the house.

He and one of his senior advisers in SA Unions came to see me about this bill, as I would expect they would. It is part of their responsibility to ensure that whoever is in government and those who are making the decisions in these matters keep abreast of what their view is and what their member unions' view is in relation to these matters. So it did not surprise me, at first blush, that he would say, 'Our position is that we are opposing the government's bill to repeal this. We feel that the registration and licensing regime that is proposed under the act should prevail. It is necessary for the protection of itinerant workers,' etc. All of this is what I would expect. That is fine, and I think it is reasonable that he would present that.

I did ask him whether there were any examples in South Australia that had been brought to his attention of exploitation of the nature that is intended to be protected by this bill. One would expect either him or one of his member unions to have a body of examples where there needed to be extra protection that would be granted by this umbrella legislation.

He immediately referred to the Four Corners program, which many contributors have commented on, and some of the appalling abuse, I would suggest, of workers that was recorded in that film, which I think was filmed three years ago. As I understand it, no-one was ever prosecuted, but it seemed, at first blush, an appalling treatment of workers.

I said, 'I am not aware of any of those cases being in South Australia.' 'No, they weren't.' The question was asked, 'Were there any others in South Australia that you are aware of?' After a number of minutes, it was clear that there was not one single case that had come to his attention as the head of SA Unions, which has multiple unions in its membership in South Australia, where there had been a breach in respect of itinerant and host employees that were intended to be covered under the labour hire legislation.

At that stage, having recently handed over part of my electorate to the member for Heysen and the member for Morialta, I explained to him that there were cherry growers, pear growers and apple growers and so on who were represented very proudly over a number of years, and I know continue to do so. When I said that the cherry season was coming up, he said, 'Oh, yes, that's it. There is a case. I have heard of it. There is an exploitation of cherry pickers.' I said, 'What, this year?' He said, 'Yes.' I said, 'To the best of my knowledge, and I am not a cherry picker expert, the season for cherry picking doesn't open for another 10 weeks.' He was unusually silent.

Nevertheless, I said to him, 'I think it is important, though, that if any single case of exploitation comes to your attention that you think this legislation would cover but, more importantly, where there had been a failing of the existing legislation to provide protection or prosecutions, please let me know.' We concluded the meeting and I thanked him for his representations. That was about three months ago.

Obviously, he has been busy doing a by-election. I accept that. I am not being critical of him not presenting any cases to us, but I just make this point. Every one of us could stand here and give stories of the exploitation of people. Every one of us could probably give multiple stories historically of cases where there has been, in our view, unacceptable conduct by an employer. But I do not know of anyone so far who has come up with any case in South Australia in the last 12 months that has not been dealt with by the existing agencies—any of those four agencies I have referred to. We now have the extra watchful eye of the task force to ensure that, where there has been misconduct in multiple areas, it has been followed up.

As the Minister for Consumer and Business Services, I make it very clear that I will continue to ensure that reports of any offences or misbehaviour in this regard are followed up. They need to be investigated. We need to ensure that good employers are recognised, that good workers are properly paid and that we do not have exploitation, especially where the worker is either young or on a temporary visa arrangement in Australia. I think they are even more vulnerable because of there being less likelihood of there being a critical number of people who might individually work in an individual industry on a seasonal basis. These are potential areas of exploitation.

We say on this side of the house that they should be protected. We say they are protected and we say this legislation does no service to us or them, other than to place a blanket of extra regulatory obligation on industry and employers that we are seeking to relieve them of. If we are not able to conclude this matter in the next few minutes, I hope we will be able to conclude it in the following week when we return.