Asbestos customs crackdown worries brokers about ‘overabundance of caution and delays’

Customs brokers who complete paperwork necessary for bringing goods into Australia fear they will be made ‘the fall guy’ for failing to stop tainted products entering the country. Imports of asbestos have been banned since 2003, but the deadly substance has recently been discovered in building materials, including at Perth’s new children’s hospital and a Brisbane high-rise building. The products were sourced from China. Lawyer Andrew Hudson, who acts for customs brokers, said Australian Border Force had issued a direction that put more responsibility on brokers to scrutinise imports for asbestos. He said brokers had to do “due diligence” and be satisfied by their client that asbestos was not in the imported product. If there are any doubts the broker must declare the goods contain asbestos. “If we add a new level of examination or a new level of inquiry, with new levels of questions which haven’t previously been asked, that will naturally add delays,” Mr Hudson said. “In the shipping world, there is a provision you have to return a container within a certain time. “It might mean you don’t meet it in a certain time which could lead to additional costs … there’s also issues then of an importer doesn’t get their goods on the day they want it, there might be a two, three or a four-day thing,” he said. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures showed more than $2 billion in manufactured goods were imported in December last year and more than $9 billion in machinery and transport equipment. Border Force has been criticised over a failure to detect some asbestos contaminated goods coming into the country. Asbestos fibres can cause lung cancers, including mesothelioma. Mr Hudson said customs brokers often received little notice from a client of an impending import, which would make “due diligence” challenging. He said if he did not get an assurance about the product he would be forced to say there might be asbestos, which would mean calling hygienists to move the product, tests, delays and extra costs. “You might find a lot of licensed customs brokers will be ticking the ‘yes’ box out of what proves to be an overabundance of caution,” he said. Last month in South Australia it was discovered chrysotile asbestos had unknowingly been imported in equipment sourced from China for a $563-million upgrade of the Port Pirie smelter. Mr Hudson said health and safety was paramount but the risk of prosecution for customs brokers, who were effectively middle-men now, appeared higher. “So we’re at a stage now where we’ve got a new regime in place there’s a slightly different level of expectation on the parties in the supply chain which I guess is a more intense requirement than previously existed. “It is very tough, there are significant issues for even getting it wrong inadvertently. “Our concern’s to ensure the licensed customs brokers who are the people making that essential declaration don’t unnecessarily face financial hardship as a result of the information they receive might not be correct after all.” A spokesman for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection said the notice it issued was to remind licensed customs brokers of their obligations. “Department of Immigration and Border Protection Notice No. 2016-30 clarified assurances that importers need to provide to the ABF that imported goods do not contain asbestos,” the spokesman said. It said it clarified the role of customs brokers and the watchdog was working with the industry to “clarify reporting requirements that the asbestos border control is effective”. It also said customs brokers would not be held responsible if they exercised their due diligence but Mr Hudson said that did not allay fears because it was not clear how due diligence was defined.

The Guardian, 19 September 2016 ; ;