Some Australian Border Force officers are considering taking second jobs, or leaving their roles at Australia's regional ports, after a Fair Work Commission decision drastically reduced the allowances for workers by thousands of dollars.
Staff are concerned remote ports could be vulnerable to drug smugglers and even people smuggling if experienced and skilled staff leave work in places like Port Hedland and Dampier in Western Australia or Gladstone in Queensland, which handle millions of tonnes of cargo a year.
After years of negotiations between unions and the Department of Home Affairs ended in a workplace determination from the Fair Work Commission, the system of allowances for workers at regional and remote ports was overhauled, and is now based on the public service award classification.
Allowances have also been reduced for members of the Marine Unit, raising concerns patrols may not be deployed if the unit can't be fully staffed.
They are concerned illegal maritime arrivals might be missed if there aren't enough patrols across Australia's northern seas.
There could also be economic impacts if cargo can't be cleared quickly enough to make its way into Australia.
Some staff expect the ports could become fly-in, fly-out operations if staff can't be found to take the remote postings.
In some remote locations, staff posted there had rent paid by the department, or they lived in department-owned accommodation. Now staff must cover their own costs in places where living expenses are high.
The Fair Work decision made transition arrangements for people receiving allowances under the old system who would no longer receive them in the new system, reducing the allowances by 25 per cent every six months over a two-year period.
The main public sector union said its members were weighing up whether they could afford to continue working in remote locations and for the Marine Unit of Border Force.
"These people put themselves and their families through significant hardship working at sea and in locations where accommodation and living costs are generally savagely expensive, often for second-rate housing and groceries," Community and Public Sector Union National President Alistair Waters said.
Mr Waters said the union had warned the department and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton retention of staff would become difficult.
"We’ve now got frontline officers in regional offices and the Marine Unit whose take-home pay is less than it was six years ago. For many people we’re talking about thousands of dollars less a year," he said.
"If the department can’t find suitably qualified and experienced staff to work in remote locations and the Marine Unit, clearly that’s going to have an impact on the integrity of Australia’s border. In the case of the Marine Unit, it only takes a comparatively small number of vacancies in key crew positions to stop Marine Unit vessels being deployed at all."
A Home Affairs spokeswoman said the department was working as quickly as possible to implement the new arrangements and "other measures to maintain attractiveness of district officers, retain talent and secure new talent".
"The workplace determination provides a range of entitlements for employees in remote localities including: district allowance; additional leave and respite leave fares. Departmental policy also provides housing assistance to employees posted or temporarily transferred to remote localities," the spokeswoman said.
The spokeswoman said that while the conditions for determining remoteness was based on the Australian Public Service Award, the rates of allowance in the workplace determination were still higher than those in the award, and continued to be competitive with or higher than other public service agencies.