Underpaid foreign workers in Hobart - Senate Adjournment Speech

Tuesday 11 September

I want to raise the issue that the government needs to act immediately to introduce a strong and effective Australian modern slavery act. The fact that an estimated 4,300 people in Australia are currently trapped in slavery or slavery-like conditions is horrifying. The clandestine nature of modern slavery makes it very difficult for authorities to detect, investigate and prosecute incidents when they do occur. Victims of modern slavery are often incredibly vulnerable and face cultural, social, economic and language barriers.

There are also significant gaps in the available support services funded by government for victims of modern slavery. Just last week in my home town of Hobart, more than 100 mostly Chinese migrants—Chinese plasterers contracted by a Victorian labour hire company and flown in from Melbourne—stopped work at the Royal Hobart Hospital redevelopment. They stopped work because they were being exploited. If they were getting paid at all, they were getting paid in cash or as an independent subcontractor. Some had waited over six or, indeed, eight weeks before they received any pay at all. Some were being paid half the minimum wage and are owed up to $10,000 each. Up to 60 of them were living in just four homes in Hobart. This all adds up to migrant workers living under slavery-like practices. Compare that with the 40 Tasmanian plasterers who remained working onsite because they had been engaged by Accuracy International under a union enterprise agreement and were being paid correctly.

Our humanity, our belief in equality, means that a worker from China or a local worker from Tasmania should be treated the same and given the same working conditions and the same rate of pay, but that is not what is going on in this country. Last year I participated in the parliamentary inquiry to bring on a modern slavery act, and it is time the government made that happen.