The Australian Council of Trade Unions has pushed for a Senate inquiry into asbestos importation which will likely succeed after winning broad cross-party support.
Labor, the Nick Xenophon Team, the Greens and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation all support a crackdown on imported asbestos after several high-profile discoveries of the hazardous material on Australian building sites.
The inquiry push will be pursued through a Senate motion on 10 October to re-establish an inquiry into non-conforming building products with a specific focus on asbestos importation. Asbestos has been discovered on a number of large building projects this year including in roof panels at the $1.2bn Perth children’s hospital project and at Multiplex’s 1 William Street site in Brisbane.
In a letter to senators calling for an inquiry the ACTU warned that the company supplying materials to those projects, Yuanda Australia, has also supplied more than 50 building sites around the country.
Importation of asbestos has been banned since 2003, but the ACTU warned Border Force lacks the resources to crack down on it, inspecting fewer than 5% of imports. ACTU assistant secretary, Michael Borowick, told Guardian Australia “you can import asbestos with impunity – that’s why it’s turning up”. He cited the fact only three entities had been prosecuted for importing asbestos since 2003 and fined the “pitiful” amount of $300,000 in total. “That would do little to deter a company like Yuanda that had revenue of $217m last financial year,” the peak body said in its letter.
“We want an investigation into why the current regime is failing so badly,” Borowick said.
Immigration minister, Peter Dutton, has previously blamed the problem on the logistical impossibility of checking every container that enters Australia. A spokeswoman for the immigration department confirmed there had been three successful prosecutions “in recent years”. She said an increased focus on asbestos by the Australian Border Force had resulted in 13 discoveries of asbestos-contaminated goods in the last year. “Border Force does not rely on prosecutions alone to ensure better compliance outcomes,” she said.
Other enforcement problems identified by the ACTU include that building materials come from countries with “unreliable or flawed standards” including that some foreign regulators allow low levels of asbestos in their products. The union body claims Chinese products can be labelled “asbestos-free” while still containing as much as 5% asbestos.
The ACTU said government reviews of the problem including the March 2016 asbestos importation review were inadequate. That report found “the asbestos border control is effective” but recommended the government should “maximise targeting of high-risk goods” and “further prioritise investigation to improve prosecution of offences related to asbestos importation”. Borowick said unions and asbestos groups were not consulted and the report did not consider changes to the Customs Act.
Labor promised an asbestos importation Senate inquiry before the election, and the Senate will consider establishing it as part of the building products inquiry at its next sitting on 10 October. Labor’s employment spokesman, Brendan O’Connor, said an inquiry was needed “to ensure a proper total ban on asbestos is enforced”.
After the discovery of asbestos in equipment used in the Port Pirie smelter redevelopment in August Nick Xenophon said: “There is absolutely no excuse for deadly asbestos to be coming into this country. “Clearly the current system of border protection, enforcement, and compliance has not worked.”
Xenophon helped establish the non-conforming building products inquiry and supports a separate inquiry or term of reference to consider asbestos importation under the current one. He said it should consider requiring all new building products coming into the country that have the potential to contain asbestos to be independently checked and certified.
Borowick said defences to asbestos importation offences needed to be considered, because companies importing the material were allowed to take assurances products did not contain asbestos at face value and escape prosecution. He also suggested liability for the head contractor on building projects should be considered when companies they engage imported asbestos.
Greens immigration spokesman, Nick McKim, told Guardian Australia: “Stopping the importation of illegal, asbestos-ridden materials requires a concerted effort, and a Senate inquiry could be a useful way to reveal the scale of the problem and propose solutions.”
Hanson said: “If the government don’t do a total ban [of asbestos building products] they’re failing their duty of care. They’re contaminated.” Hanson called for a wider ban on foreign building products, saying use of Australian products would create jobs and ensure they were asbestos-free. Despite calling an inquiry a “waste of time”, Hanson said “of course I will [support it] if they won’t do what I’m calling for”.
Source: The guardian.com
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