Q&A

Immigration estimates question BE14/126, regarding people who hold a 457 visa:

Senator KIM CARR: How many workers have had serious work-related injuries, say in the last year? Can you tell me that?

Dr Southern: Not off the top of my head. We will take that on notice.

Answer:

The department is unable to provide statistics on work place injuries sustained by Subclass 457 visa holders as there is no legislative requirement for a sponsor to notify the department of such events.

This is a textbook Senate Estimates example of politicians asking the wrong questions and bureaucrats obfuscating the provision of further information.

Kim Carr is very interested in 457 visas. He is a known opponent of the increasing scale of the 457 visa program and considers there to be a lack of in-built protection within the program for Australian workers, including a negative safety impact on workplaces. This is an important issue, understated and under-analysed, particularly in industries such as construction and hospitality.

However he ends up with no information.

Contrary to the answer provided, in fact, the Department of Immigration could provide this information. While it is true there is no legislative requirement to notify the department of ‘serious work-related injuries’, the department can ask for such information. Under “sponsor obligations”, employers must provide certain information, when requested. This includes any information or record that is “required under Commonwealth, state or territory law”.

I would consider serious work-related injuries to fall under the provision of organisations such as WorkCover (to use the Victoria example) who are required to be notified in the case of serious work-related injuries. On the Victorian Workcover Authority website, employers must “keep a Register of Injuries to keep track of work-related injuries and illnesses” in relation to lodging claims. For each injury where claims are involved, an individual claim form must be lodged. Under the 457 obligations, each of these forms are available for the department to request.

Instead of asking the 35,000 employers who sponsor 457 visa holders for their workcover claim forms, the Department has obviously thought about this particular issue. There are are a set of Memorandum of Understanding’s with these state organisations (here is the NSW version). These documents allow exactly for this type of analysis, swapping information to better understand issues such as worker safety.

That this analysis has not occurred is my fault as much as much as anyone elses. When I worked in the 457 policy team, I never thought of looking into something like this. However these types of estimate questions are excellent catalysts which should flow back into the bureaucracy as a feedback mechanism to prompt analysis. Are 457 visa holders, relative to Australian workers, more prone to serious work-related injuries? This is an important question, perhaps why Senator Carr is asking in the first place, and deserves an answer. It doesn’t have to be immediate but it should be on the radar. Would this analysis be time consuming? Yes. But worthwhile.

One thing is clear. The answer provided by the department is clearly designed to chase away further inquiries on this topic. Many departmental answers provided stick to the minimal amount of information required, dismissing the intent or framework of the question. In this particular answer, there is no reference to employer obligations relating to work-related injuries or the departmental framework which has been established – such as the MoU’s – to deal with this type of issue. This style of response is now embedded across the public service, an attempt to minimalise avenues for future questions and deliberately limit the scope of information provided to parliamentarians.

I don’t believe the department has actively lied here but it has not provided the correct response. This is a mistake, at worst. However because policy officers are tasked with providing the least amount of possible information to limit risk, this type of mistake – loose wording provided to parliamentarians – occurs often. I did it multiple times and look back on responses I drafted with dismay.

From within the bureaucracy, its very hard to see something like this as an issue. But it is. This is one very small example of bureaucratic culture stifling parliamentary accountability for very specific political and resource-related reasons. It doesn’t help when there are thousands of questions to answer (a blogpost for another time). But politicians need to know what occurs inside the public service as well as how it works. This should be a relatively simple request from Senator Carr but it isn’t. For (at least) the next two years Carr is going to be asking these questions about visas in the labour market. If he is ignorant about basic capacity of the department which is responsible, we get a less accountable system of governance. If he is ignorant because he cannot get information relatively straight forward information from the public service, there is something seriously wrong with the system.

If I may suggest some followup questions if this initial response is considered insufficient:

How many times has the Department requested sponsors provide records on workcover claims relating to migrants who hold a 457 visa?

How often has the Department requested information from State-based workplace authorities under the existing set of MoUs?

How does the Department monitor workplace safety for 457 visas? What analysis has occurred to determine the rate of serious workplace injuries relative to Australian workers?

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