Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (10:19): More than two years ago now, I contacted the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to express concern about the conditions or legitimacy of foreign workers at a mushroom farm just outside of the township of Singleton in my electorate.
My office was told by the department that it had no concerns about the firm and the foreign workers, and that if I wanted to pursue it further they would need a formal complaint from someone outside of my office. I do not know what has become of a system when a department takes no real note of a complaint from a member of parliament. I also raised the issue with an industry leader in the mushroom sector who assured me that Gromor, the firm involved, was one that does the right thing. He was confident that everything that was done there was legitimate and within the rules.
Always reluctant to attack a local company, I left it at that—maybe wrongly. Maybe I should have put the James Bond sunglasses on and delved further into Gromor. But, having been reassured by the industry leader—who I choose, rightfully, not to name—and the department, I chose to let it go and not go on a public attack against a public company. So you can imagine my distress today when I learned, courtesy of The Newcastle Herald, that the foreign workers—mainly Asian workers with little or no English—have been collectively underpaid to the tune of some $90,000 in one financial year. This story comes thanks to the work of the Fair Work Ombudsman. I assume that at some point there was a formal complaint to the Fair Work Ombudsman, or they may have picked it up in their auditing processes. This is not only of concern as to the system that is allowing this to repeatedly happen, but it is of great concern to my constituents, who are now learning that foreign workers are displacing local workers because they are cheaper to the employer. I do not know whether the firm involved knew about the pay arrangements because, like so many, it had engaged a labour provider known as TDS International.
We in this place have seen this too often. It happened at another facility in the Hunter region, Baiada's Beresfield chicken facility. It is happening too often. We need to have a debate beyond the ill-conceived backpacker's tax. We need to look at 417s and 462s to assure ourselves that workers are not being exploited and that Australians are not being denied jobs because of the use of foreign workers.