TRANSCRIPT - ROUNDTABLE - CANBERRA - Monday, 26 August 2019

26 August 2019

SENATOR THE HON KRISTINA KENEALLY
DEPUTY LABOR LEADER IN THE SENATE
SHADOW MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS
SHADOW MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION AND CITIZENSHIP
SENATOR FOR NEW SOUTH WALES


 
E&OE TRANSCRIPT
POLICY ROUNDTABLE OPENING REMARKS
CANBERRA
MONDAY, 26 AUGUST 2019
 
SUBJECT: Roundtable to discuss Peter Dutton’s failure to control our borders and worker exploitation of ‘airplane people’.
 
KRISTINA KENEALLY, DEPUTY LABOR LEADER IN THE SENATE AND SHADOW MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS: Welcome everyone. It's a delight to welcome you all to this roundtable to deal and discuss the challenge of, really, people trafficking, and people using the asylum system in order to traffic people - workers - into Australia. This is a problem that is growing and hopefully today's roundtable helps us define part of the problem and identify solutions. I want to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging, and also knowledge that we will be joined shortly by Carla Wilshire who is running a bit late, but we thought we would kick this off, I want to thank each and every one of you for being here today.
 
I know that many of you had to travel to be here and am very appreciative on behalf of Andrew (Giles), who is the Shadow Minister Assisting in Immigration and Citizenship, the two of us are very appreciative of your time and your contribution here today. At the table, around the table, we will have today experts on border security, on immigration, representatives from unions, from the agricultural sector, as well as members of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, and Members of Parliament. So we appreciate all of your contributions.
 
You're all experts or specialists in many aspects of this problem. The problem we'll be discussing today has many facets, and there's not a single solution and that's why we wanted to have as many people here today to be part of the conversation, to share your firsthand knowledge, to share your insights on this challenge, which has for too long been ignored by the Government. This is a real start and a real opportunity. Particularly I want to acknowledge for the people who are ultimately the victims of this exploitative workforce system.
 
Well, as we sit in this room today too I think it's worth acknowledging that just to down the hall, the Government are kicking off their inquiry into the Medevac legislation and while we're not here to discuss that today, it would be negligent to me as the Shadow Minister for Home Affairs and Immigration and Citizenship not to acknowledge this - that the Government are down the hall, making an argument about 650 people on Manus and Nauru, some of whom are quite sick and need medical attention. And meanwhile, completely ignoring a problem that is seeing some 80,000 people trafficked into Australia, by criminal syndicates and illegal hire companies who are exploiting the asylum protection system in order to traffic workers into the country.
 
That to me, and this is a political statement and I acknowledge not all of you here part of a political movement, but that to me, is a misplaced priority from the Government. And while from Opposition, Labor won't be able to solve the problem here today, what my aim here is to develop a coalition of people, a coalition of organisations, all of whom understand the scope of the challenge of airplane arrivals, and seek to identify solutions, advocate for change, ultimately get the Government to solve this problem. But none of us wants to see this problem continue to grow and that's what today is about.
 
Let's be clear that what we are talking about - we are talking about people smugglers moving their business model from boats to planes. That's what's happening here. People smugglers are moving their business model from boats to planes and you don't need to take my word for it. No less than the Government's own Minister Jason Wood said last year in a report - a joint committee, parliamentary committee, report on migration said that there is growing evidence of illegal labour hire companies and criminal syndicates, exploiting the loophole in our system to traffic workers into the country.
 
Now, the loophole isn't necessarily in any law or rule. The loophole exists because the Department of Home Affairs has seen processing times for all kinds of temporary visa blowout to unacceptable levels, .We now have some 230,000 bridging visas in Australia. To put that in context, it was about 82,000 bridging visas in 2013. So we've had a massive blow out in bridging visas. We know that the average time to settle and asylum claim can be between two and three years.  We know the average time for a spouse visa to be approved is now about two years. It is this blow out in the visa processing times that creates the very loophole that these criminal syndicates and illegal labour hard companies exploit.
 
They know that if they can get a person here on a legal visa, on a tourist visa, or student visa, and get them to apply for asylum and have them in the country for two, three, sometimes four years with work rights, and then those people can be sent to work in areas such as agriculture, such as hospitality, sometimes in sexual servitude, sometimes in conditions that are close to slavery, knowing that they have no rights, and no ability to advocate for their rights as workers, and knowing that they are in a vulnerable position.
 
Now what happens with these people? Some 90 per cent of them are found not to be refugees. Sometimes they stay illegally in the country, sometimes they're sent home, but what we have is a growing reliance in some of our sectors on a workforce that has been trafficked here illegally, and that's what today's roundtable wants to discuss. We want to identify the scope of the problem, we want to gather the insight that you have from your various sectors, and we want to begin to identify solutions. I do want to acknowledge this isn't a new problem. All of you will know that in times past, there have been spikes in airplane arrivals - people arriving and seeking asylum. And when this has happened, the Department of Immigration in the past has noticed, maybe even after a couple hundred, and stepped in to address the problem. Now, we have a blowout in the magnitudes of tens of thousands, and it seems to me the Government has missed this spike and has been asleep at the wheel. We can discuss some of the reasons why that has happened, and we can discuss some of the ability for the government and for the sector to advocate - excuse me, for their sector to advocate to the government for change.
 
Now, we are going to have a number of - we're going to hear from a number of you today. I want to focus on different aspects of this problem. I'd like to briefly invite a few people here, before we go into our discussions and while our friends from the media are still here, to say a few things to us. I'd like to - and I will be calling on Abul Rizvi, John Coyne, and Emma Germano - thank you so much for being here, Emma - to talk to us about the history of airplane people, the implications for border security, and the impact on agriculture and horticultural sector. So if I could start with you, Abul, to provide some background on issue, outline how it occurs, and how it's been addressed previously.
 
ABUL RIZVI, FORMER DEPUTY SECRETARY, DEPARTMENT OF IMMIGRATION AND BORDER PROTECTION: Thanks, Kristina. I think as Kristina has pointed out, criminal syndicates trafficking people to undertake low-skill work for low pay - it's been an issue for developed nations for decades. It's nothing new. As Kristina pointed out, the Malaysian ETA scam, where rogue operators bring potential workers to Australia and then apply for asylum to enable an extended stay with work right, has been around for almost 20 years. The Department knew full well how to deal with those sorts of spikes in the past, but for whatever reason - and the reasons probably have multiple factors to them - this time around, the Home Affairs Department did not act. I suspect it's not a function that the Home Affairs Department doesn't know how to act on this. It would have all of the evidence it needs on its files. I think what has happened is, one, the focus of the Government's attention has been so obsessively on boat arrivals that it's lost track of the importance of maintaining the health of the visa system, and it's the overall health of the visa system that I think is driving the problem.
 
I might just highlight a few other statistics that indicate how ill that system is. As Kristina pointed out, the problem of bridging visa holders and the stock of those. That is at levels that are just absolutely eye-watering. I reckon if Peter (Hughes) and I were still in the Department, and Philip Ruddock was Minister, we would probably have been sacked for allowing the bridging visa backlog to grow to the level it has. Ruddock understood the problems created by a huge bridging visa backlog. The second thing I would point out in terms of the health of the visa system is the volume of people who are arriving in Australia on visitor visas, and then extending stay not just for asylum purposes, but for others. We have now reached the point where 25 per cent of Net Overseas Migration - and remember Net Overseas Migration is how the government determines the contribution of migration to our population increase – 25 per cent of Net Overseas Migration is now from people arriving on visitor visas. That is an indication of a sick system.
In the past, 5 per cent, perhaps 10 per cent, may have been regarded as acceptable. 25 per cent is a problem. It's flashing red. Another factor that I would point out is the extraordinary understaffing and under-resourcing of the processing system. That is not because the Government has a lack of resources in this space. The visa fees the Government charges are significantly - very significantly in almost every instance - in excess of what the Government devotes to processing those visas. So in many ways, the health of the visa system is the result of budget decisions by Government.
 
It's reaping large amounts of revenue from the visa application fees, but not devoting that resource to actually making sure the system operates as it should. No less a person as John Howard pointed out recently in an interview with the BBC that control of the visa system is critical to maintaining public confidence in immigration. He's right, and we are starting to lose control of the visa system, and that will lead to a loss of public confidence in the immigration program. It is a place we should never be, and we should never allow ourselves to be, because immigration is too important for the future of this country. Thanks.
 
SENATOR KENEALLY: Thank you, Abul. And before we go to John, I think it's worth noting, and I think you would agree with me, that there is nothing wrong with seeking asylum. This is not - this conversation is not about demonizing people who seek asylum. It's about demonizing the people who are using the asylum system to traffic workers here.
 
MR RIZVI: That's absolutely right. The people we're talking about are generally vulnerable people. They will have little financial resources, and they are being exploited - they're being exploited by criminals, and they're be exploited by unscrupulous labour hire companies. They have a right to seek asylum, certainly, but they don't deserve to be exploited.
 
SENATOR KENEALLY: And when we see a statistic that says 90 per cent of the people are found not to be refugees, it helps to remember that that would say that there's 10 per cent who are refugees - they are also suffering because of this system.
 
MR RIZVI: That's absolutely right. The interesting thing to note here is that the 90 per cent figure applies across the board in terms of nationalities. Many nationalities, albeit in smaller numbers, have much higher rates of approval, but the rates of approval of people, for example, from Malaysia, are as low as 2 per cent. Clearly, there's a scam going on.
 
SENATOR KENEALLY: Thank you. John, would you be able to speak to us a bit about the border security implications?
 
JOHN COYNE, DIRECTOR OF BORDER SECURITY, AUSTRALIAN STRATEGIC POLICY INSTITUTE: Look, I'd be delighted to. Thank you very much for the invitation to be here today. I think it's very important from the very start to look at this in terms of the global trends and the effects of that. So the facts remain is that we have an unprecedented number of people seeking asylum across the world who are in danger. We have an increasing number of people and demands for a regular migration services, because, put simply, the supply of places for people, both in terms of asylum and in terms of economic opportunities, don't meet the demand, and to put a - very clear factors such as ballooning youth populations, endemic corruption, unskilled labour surpluses are creating globally waves of irregular economic migrants that we haven't simply seen in the past.
 
Interestingly, and when it comes to onshore applications, we see the security conditions in Syria, Afghanistan, Central America, North Korea, Iraq and Iran continue to drive unprecedented levels of migration. Some changes in Syria, I'll sort of give some ground on, however, if we look at the majority of our onshore applications, they do not come from these countries. 
 
Now, look, Operation Sovereign Borders has been an incredibly successful operation in terms of this, which is it has prevented the arrival of maritime ventures in this country. We haven't seen any additions to offshore processing in terms of numbers since it's starting. That success, of course, is brittle, and I've raised this in the past, which is that success there is predominantly focused on ensuring that any would-be asylum seeker feels that there is no hope of ever coming to Australia, which is rather ironic for the Lucky Country to be dealing in undermining hope. I believe the latest challenges, in fact, are now dealing with onshore applications, and visa condition violations, and by that I think that we need to talk about three separate cohorts here.
 
The first cohort are those who have been traditionally trafficked in modern day slavery conditions. The second ones are those who arrive on the basis of a visa, and violate those visa requirements. The third are those people who come onshore with a legitimate visa, applying for asylum. I want to be clear from my perspective, as a national security practitioner, it's not a crime nor necessarily a national security risk that someone claims asylum or asks for protection from our nation, but there are crimes, as defined under the Australian legislation, these cohorts are often complicit in, including seeking out the services of those who provide advice, fake documentation, etc. What I want to be clear on also is that, in terms of national security threats, is organized crime are indeed facilitating unlawful migration on a fee-for-service basis, using methodologies from fake identity documents, to gaming Australia's visa system. Australia's border security arrangements are being exploited, and individuals who have not been appropriately identified are at times entering the country.
 
While it's unlikely that this would be exploited by terrorist groups, it remains the fact that it can be abused by criminal groups and is at times. The final component is that the Australian black economy is indeed being supported by organized crime, who along with businesses involved, are using these methods to exploit workers, and those involved are not paying taxes and are often remitting their salaries out of the country. What I do want to say here is that there are issues in regards to the Australian Border Force and its ability to undertake operations on behalf of Home Affairs and the portfolio. There are problems in terms of legislative players under the Migration Act to address serious organized crime groups, including access to police powers, such as search warrants.
 
The argument here is in the past that these have been provided by the Australian Federal Police, but as we saw last year in Senate Estimates by evidence from Commissioner Andrew Colvin, we see an overarching demand a couple of times that can't be met already by the AFP, and with no additional funding, that's simply not possible. It's easy to see that there's been a range of successes in terms of stretching out the border continuum and doing further work offshore, but much more needs to be done onshore in regards to big data analytics and fixing the old visa system using new analytic capabilities. I believe there's a temptation in this space to really look and do small policy tweaks, especially with respect to risk based decision making. While this may result in some initial successes, I don't think it's going to fix the problem.
 
From my personal perspective, I believe that we need to develop the Department's capabilities and the risk modelling and big data analytics that inform visa and border decision making. The Joint Standing Committee on Migration should undertake an inquiry into how the ABF and AFP operational activities actually disrupting irregular migrant channels to the air stream. I believe that legislative reform including improving ABF access to appropriate powers, and current review and appeal processes, is necessary, and developing a strategy to resolve the onshore illegal non-citizen cohort that we have here, many of which - over 50 per cent - have been here for longer than three years. Thank you.
 
SENATOR KENEALLY: Thank you.  Something I think we'll come back to later, but you mentioned several times there using data big data more efficiently. We've talked about the fact that this spike has occurred in the past. Are you saying that there are patterns in the data that, if the Department were more properly using...
 
MR COYNE: Well, I think - I would contest these patterns. I don't think we've seen the same patterns as we're seeing now. I think the scale of the problems are significantly different, and they are the same scale that we find across the world. So for instance, if you were to go to London today, every restaurant has an Eastern European who's sitting there serving, or an Eastern European who's coming through and providing services in the service industry for a cheaper rate than domestic labour.  Now some argument there is that that's because those positions can't be filled. So I do contest that, from my perspective, I think that we're in an unprecedented period - the number of people moving for both economic reasons, etc. I believe that our data systems, and certainly there's been tests by the Department of Home Affairs that auto-granting and the use of big data analytics has certainly proven to be able to, on a risk basis, process more accurately offshore applications from for instance, on China. There was a test done in China with a number of cases there, and the success rate was incredibly high. So my point is, I think that we need to do far more with the data we've got, and unfortunately, we've entered a new stage where that can't be done by individual officers, and it needs to be done more automatically, and it comes back to that central argument nationally of how we how we build the next generation of visa migration systems, and whether - back to that argument of whether it's outsourced, and where we find the resources to build it if it's not.
 
SENATOR KENEALLY: Okay. Thank you. One of the sectors that's most affected by the trafficking of people, and dependency on labour hire companies to traffic people here to fill a genuine labour shortage, is in agriculture, and I know that Emma Germano from the Victorian Farmers Federation has been doing a significant amount of work, both with growers and with the workforce on this issue, and Emma, we're really pleased to have you here today. Maybe if you could speak a bit about the industry implications of this issue.
 
EMMA GERMANO, HORTICULTURE PRESIDENT, VICTORIAN FARMERS FEDERATION: So I represent an industry that's found itself at the coalface of what is a broken visa system. We have a myriad of issues in regards to how the visa system is impacting us on-farm every day, and we talked about whether or not this becomes an issue of national security, but I would suggest that anything that undermines the food system industry absolutely undermines national security. We're in the position that we have very little control over the workers that are made available to us and the system within which the whole thing operates, and yet we're the ones that are being held responsible.
 
So we find ourselves unwitting Border Force protection officers, we find ourselves the Fair Work Ombudsman, we become the ATO enforcement when required, and we're the sitting ducks because everybody else can abscond. Everybody else can phoenix a company, but a farmer is attached to his land, or her land, and we're very dedicated to producing food. So we're just sitting there waiting to be the ones that the finger is pointed at, and that's exactly what's been happening. We're also kind of sick and tired of being – of speaking about an issue that has been an issue for a number of years, and lobbying a government that seems to be increasingly making counterintuitive decisions in regards to this problem.
 
So we've just seen recent changes to the visa system, the 417 system, that would indicate to me that we're going to be talking about this particular problem for years and years to come, and we're talking about people who are potentially asylum seekers or getting through the system in other ways - it does undermine the fact that there are genuine people who are trying to get asylum in this country, and it also means that we're seeing so much exploitation coming out of our industry. It just undermines our clean, green, safe, ethical industry that we are, and that we aim to be. It means that all growers get tarnished with the same brush, and when a Four Corners report says that were the ones exploiting vulnerable workers, it's actually quite devastating to the growers who are doing the right thing.
 
I would like to highlight though, as much as I'm talking about our sector, that at the end of the day, we see real human impacts of these, and this is something that for a farmer, you see the impacts of the broken system on your farm with the people who are working for you, that you might have very little control or ability to be able to help them in the situation that they're in, but you see them be exploited and they are very much real people, and they're people who form relationships with the growers that they're picking fruit and vegetables here. And we're at the point now where we need to see meaningful change, because we can't - we simply cannot be part of this system, and being at the pointy end of it where the finger is pointed at us for something that we have very, very little control over.
 
SENATOR KENEALLY: If I can unpack that for a moment. I think a lot of people may not understand when you say, you know, that the growers have very little power in this situation. My understanding is there is a need, obviously, for workers, and often sometimes a seasonal or itinerant workforce, but nonetheless, a need for a workforce. Where do growers find these workers?
 
MS GERMANO: And the nature of farms means that you can need 200 workers one day, and two days later after a shower or rain you only need 50 workers. So we have been reliant as an industry on labour hire services being provided to us for a long time. It makes it very difficult, because we literally have to check each individual worker and ensure that they have working rights in Australia. The very process by which we check working rights in Australia is one that's based on discrimination. So if you look and sound like an Australian person, you don't have to get a VEVO check, but if you look and sound like you're not an Australian person, all of a sudden you find yourself being checked by a farmer, or by someone in the farming business, and I can assure you that going through that process with newly-arrived migrants is actually completely lacking in dignity for both the grower and the workers themselves just to start with.
 
So it's difficult for us to attract people directly onto our farms, where there's some insinuation of illegal activity going on, trafficking, crime syndicates. These poor workers who don't have the law behind them will never come and work for us directly as growers. So as much as we might like to employ them directly, they've got a huge fear of retribution from these criminal syndicates who have often tricked them into coming into Australia, make them believe that they've got the right to work here when they get here, potentially taken their passports from them when they arrive. We've got growers who are paying upwards of $31 an hour for staff, and workers who are being paid as little as $4 or $8 an hour. That money is going somewhere in between. As a grower, I can assure you we would like for that money to be going into workers, but there are just so many implications to this problem, and that makes anything that is legitimate, or that we're trying to do legitimately for the industry, is completely undermined by the fact that there are now the presence of, in some regions, more than 60 or 70 per cent of the workers that are on farms are undocumented workers.
 
SENATOR KENEALLY: And we'll talk about this more in a moment, but again, just while the media are here, you made a comment that farmers can't phoenix - you're referring, I take it, to the fact that these labour hire companies will phoenix - they will put themselves out of business and then resurrect the next day.
 
MS GERMANO: They do, and the most frustrating thing for a grower is that you'll see these - a labour hire contractor change his business name six times, get out of trying to make contracts with the growers, that disappeared for a six month period and then pop up again with a new business name, and often undocumented workers who were taken and removed from properties will also resurface again about six to 12 months later, or the following season. So there's a definite broken system. We fear Border Force as growers, although we also would like to see Border Force doing a meaningful job. It often feels to us as growers, or as industry, that what Border Force do is merely a PR activity. So that the Government can say that, ""Oh yes, we're actually trying to do something about undocumented workers or crime syndicates or anything like that"", and yet the reality is that there is no meaningful approach to that enforcement, or actually changing this process.
 
SENATOR KENEALLY: Thank you. That's just some opening comments. We will all be making conversation and contributions throughout the day, but as you can see from the experience and the knowledge in the room so far, that this is a significant issue, it's affecting a range of sectors. We've got workers being exploited, we've got public confidence in the migration system being undermined, we have as a consequence of a workforce being underpaid, driving down wages and conditions for Australians. We will have a lot more to say on these issues throughout the morning, but we might pause here - allow our friends from the media to depart - and in a moment go on to discuss, specifically, visas and border control, the issues around criminal syndicates, and the blow out in Home Affairs and AAT timeframes. But we will allow media to depart now. Thank you.
 
ENDS