Mandarins, celebrity chefs and dairy farmhands: Inside the secret world of labour agreements

A worker at a dairy
A worker at a dairy farm. The dairy industry template labour agreement allows local businesses to bring in foreign senior farmhands. Source: AAP

SBS World News takes a look at labour agreements, a little-known component of Australia's temporary foreign worker program.

The 457 visa reforms in April were bad news for many businesses who were hoping to employ foreign workers and people overseas looking to find jobs in Australia.

More than 200 occupations were cut from the list of eligible jobs by the government, and pathways to permanent residency were blocked for hundreds more.

Secretary of the Immigration Department, Michael Pezzullo, admitted to Senate Estimates in May that there will be new blocks in the 457 program.

"If however," he said, "...there's a company-specific or institution-specific requirement, the 'labour agreement' - which we intend to use for those sorts of cases - will be the better targeted measure."

What is a labour agreement?

Labour agreements are deals between the government and individual businesses that allow the business to hire foreign workers who wouldn’t usually be eligible for a 457 visa.

The business is required to jump through several hoops, including demonstrating that it has tried to find local workers and consult with unions, before an agreement can be approved.

Why are labour agreements important?

The government has been approving these agreements at an increasing rate in recent years, according to information released during the Senate Estimates process.

In 2012-13, 54 agreements were approved. In 2016-17, 105 were approved in the 11 months to the end of May.

More than 3200 foreign workers were in Australia on a labour agreement in March.

Dr Joanna Howe, Associate Professor in Law at the University of Adelaide, said concessions in these agreements could undermine the foundation of the temporary foreign worker visa scheme, "this notion that unless there’s a labour shortage, an overseas worker should not come to fill that occupation."

The scheme also created extremely vulnerable workers, according to Dr Howe. It was difficult for a worker on a labour agreement to leave a company and be able to find another Australian job and that, she said, gave greater power to business owners over their workers.

"This is an even more precarious class of worker than your regular 457 visa holder."

They are also the only migration pathway for semi-skilled labour to come to Australia.

Why haven’t I heard of these before?

Up until this week, very little was known about labour agreements. But there had been calls for more information to be released about the scheme.

A 2016 Senate Committee report called for a list of labour agreements to be made public, as well as any exemption provided under the agreements. Even the Coalition Senators on the Committee found no reason to object to the recommendation.

On Monday, the government delivered on the first part of that recommendation when it published a list of 314 labour agreements that were currently in-effect.

What are the terms of labour agreements?

Some businesses have company-specific agreements, where negotiations between the business and government start from scratch.

Others have industry template agreements, which provides terms negotiated by an industry body and the government that can be used by businesses in that sector.

An example of an industry template is the dairy industry agreement, which allows senior farmhands - an occupation not available in the ordinary 457 scheme - to be imported to work 45-hour weeks, as opposed to the standard 38-hour week.

The exemptions, concessions and variations to the 457 scheme are only published for industry template agreements, meaning little is known about what’s inside company specific agreements.

When asked why the terms of the agreements had not also been published on the website, a spokesperson for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection told SBS World News that "company specific templates typically only contain limited concessions, usually in relation to occupation or the age of proposed overseas workers."

"Further details of individual agreements are not included on the website as it is considered appropriate that more sensitive business information contained in labour agreement requests and agreements remain confidential,” the spokesperson said.

What businesses have labour agreements?

According to the recently published list 314 labour agreements are currently in effect in Australia. The list of businesses includes recognisable names as well as some in sectors not traditionally associated with foreign workers.

Burger Project, a fast food chain owned by Rockpool Dining Group, the company for who celebrity chef Neil Perry works as Chief Brand & Culinary Officer, is on the list.

A spokesperson said in a statement that the company "uses such agreements where necessary to ensure its stores are adequately and skilfully resourced."

"Unlike most fast food restaurants, which just finish off pre-prepared products in their kitchens, our burgers are made by hand and from scratch on site every day, requiring trained chefs and managers, of which there is a shortfall in Australia," the statement read.

The government announced in March the template labour agreement used by the fast food industry would be scrapped. However, agreements already in place, such as that of Burger Project which runs until 2019, will not be affected. The Burger Project spokesperson would not confirm how many workers are employed under each of its agreement.

Two businesses within the large Specsavers retail network are also listed. A spokesperson said each agreement was for a single specialist retail manager, because "we had tried unsuccessfully to recruit through all the usual channels in Australia". Ultimately, only one entity brought in a foreign worker, after a local person was successfully brought into the other role.

The agreement of foreign-owned Tasmanian dairy company Van Diemen’s Land allows them to bring in up to four foreign farmhands, and came into effect in November last year - eight months after the company changed hands - and runs until 2019.

However Sean Shwe, managing director of Van Diemen’s Land parent company Moon Lake, said the company had never used the agreement and it had no intention of using it.

"This is a legacy agreement sought by the former owners of Van Diemens Land and transferred across to Moon Lake Investments as part of the purchase,” he told SBS World News.

"We understand the former owners of Van Diemen's Land Co sought the agreement because the company had been approached regularly by Tasmanian refugee organisations to find positions for skilled farm hands but had to turn them away as it was not set up to be able to do it.”

What remains unknown?

Other businesses are less open about their agreements.

Glass Assist, the windscreen replacement arm of motoring assistance company Club Assist, has an agreement. The company was invited to share details of the agreement but declined. A spokesperson said it hasn't been used "for a couple of years". The agreement came into effect in January 2017.

Superior Production Company Pty Ltd is the owner of one of the largest mandarin farms in the Southern Hemisphere: 2PH in Emerald, Queensland. Director of the company, Craig Pressler, claimed to have no knowledge of any labour agreement, when approached for comment by SBS World News.

An agreement for Brookfield Rail Employment Pty Ltd (now known as ARC Infrastructure Employment Pty Ltd) came into effect in May 2014. ARC Infrastructure operates much of the rail network in Western Australia. The agreement lapsed in May, though the company declined an invitation from SBS World News to share details of their concessions.

University of Adelaide's Dr Howe said publishing the list of businesses with labour agreements fell short of the level of transparency required to maintain integrity of the temporary foreign worker program.

"For this information to be meaningful we need to know where these labour agreements allow these workers to go within the Australian labour market and to do which jobs," she said.

Know something about your employer's labour agreement? Make sure you are outside your work internet network, then visit this form to share information and files with SBS World News anonymously.

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