Chronic understaffing and poor working conditions are opening gaps in border security and causing staff burnout in Australian Border Force, the main public sector union has told Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews.
The Community and Public Sector Union wrote to Ms Andrews and her department's secretary, Mike Pezzullo, on Thursday warning its members had reported a lack of staff was undermining border security and the safety of Border Force officers.
CPSU deputy national president Brooke Muscat said staff were seeing gaps emerge due to extreme understaffing.
In her letter to the minister and Mr Pezzullo, Ms Muscat said a significant number of ports were staffed with less than three officers and that many aspects of the job were not being conducted safely, if at all.
"Workers are reporting a growing administrative workload (exacerbated by chronic understaffing), which is preventing officers from being able to complete many critical tasks," she wrote.
Staff were largely unable to complete dossiers of their area of operations, including beach landing sites and potential risks. They also reported being limited to office-based work, meaning they were unable to board vessels, hold in-person interviews with captains, check crew passports, mitigate the risk of crew desertion, and conduct inspections of non-cargo goods.
"In multiple cases, the CPSU has heard from officers who have never been able to board a vessel in their tenure," Ms Muscat wrote.
"Workers have identified gaping holes in visibility over what commercial vessels and yachts bring into the country.
"The inability to complete this task poses a greater risk of drug smuggling, crew members deserting their vessels, and international drug syndicates prospering in poorly staffed ports."
The CPSU had serious concerns for the health and safety of employees staffing these areas, Ms Muscat wrote.
A recent survey, completed by a majority of workers, showed 89 per cent of respondents indicated understaffing in their work areas and drew a direct correlation to the mental health of staff.
Almost half of the district office and regional ports staff reported burnout due to working conditions (46 per cent), lowered levels of motivation (61 per cent), reduced efficiency and energy (44 per cent), and anxiety (43 per cent).
Ms Muscat told The Canberra Times on Friday that staff across border ports were overwhelmed by the mammoth workloads they faced, often in isolation.
"Home Affairs' failure to attract staff to these positions is the sole cause of these risks for the community," she said.
In response to questions, Ms Andrews praised Border Force staff and said border security was a key government priority.
"I have no doubt that as we emerge from the pandemic and reopen the international border at scale, the ABF's workforce will continue to be resilient, flexible, and adaptive; as it has been over the last 18 months," she said.
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