THE ANDREWS Government’s $8.5 million labour hire licensing bill is a “shocking” piece of legislation that will not achieve what it’s been created to do according to Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) Horticulture president and Mirboo North farmer Emma Germano.
Created in response to the 2016 Victorian Inquiry into the Labour Hire Industry and Insecure Work, which uncovered widespread abuse and exploitation of workers across Victoria, the Labour Hire Licensing Bill 2017 establishes a universal licensing scheme and an independent Labour Hire Licensing Authority designed to protect labour hire workers across all sectors, including horticulture, contract cleaning, and meat processing.
If the Bill makes it through parliament, the new laws will come into effect in 2019. But the VFF, which has been campaigning against the Bill since its introduction to parliament last December, hopes there’s still a chance it can be defeated with sustained lobbying pressure.
Ms Germano, who farms broccoli and cauliflower at Mirboo North, says the legislation will hurt farmers already struggling in the midst of a “labour nightmare”.
“This season, I haven’t put in my usual crops mainly because of the shortage of workers, and this legislation is just an extra piece of bureaucracy and red tape that will make it more difficult for farmers already struggling to find labour,” she said.
While acknowledging that “something has to change”, Ms Germano says the scheme will place a financial burden on farmers, while failing to achieve its stated aim of protecting workers from exploitation.
“The costs of the licences will be built into the cost of the labour, and every cost can be passed onto the farmer. They’re the ones most stuck in the supply chain.
“In principle, we’re not saying there shouldn’t be a better vetting system. We acknowledge that there are problems and we acknowledge that there are ‘rogue operators’, whether they be farmers or labour hire firms, but this scheme is not going to fix exploitation, it’s just a distraction until they realise they need to figure out a proper solution. And a lot of businesses could go broke in the meantime.”
Ms Germano suggests a proper solution would involve a national approach, and increased resources to enforce existing regulations.
“We want a holistic approach. The entire workforce for horticulture needs to be looked at. It’s too disorganised at the moment. And we undoubtedly have a lot of people in the industry without working rights.”
Ms Germano and the VFF are calling for an amnesty for labourers who have been working within the Australian agriculture sector without legal working rights and who will agree to continue working within agriculture.
“We need a clean slate and then it’s about going hell for leather on enforcement. That could mean something like a state government taskforce that’s matched with federal funding. So the enforcement could be more state-based but it’s still a national approach.”
The VFF also supports the creation of a dedicated visa for agriculture, as well as urging the government to do more to promote horticulture as a jobs pathway for young Australians.
“We’ve got a lot of ideas but unfortunately the people making the decisions are more interested in PR stunts and playing political games,” Ms Germano said.
“I honestly think they’ve forgotten what their job is.”
The Labour Hire Licensing Bill has made it through the Legislative Assembly and has reached the second reading stage in the Victorian Legislative Council.
The Liberal and National parties are voting against the bill and it will need crossbench support to pass.
Debate is due to resume when the Legislative Council next sits, on Tuesday, May 1.