A “critical” lack of staff exacerbated by changes to Australia’s visa system has created an “unsafe work environment” at air traffic control, according to an investigation by The Age.
The newspaper obtained a bulletin by the industry’s union that claimed staff were being called in on days off to fill shortages and also separately heard from foreign workers who had their job offers cancelled because the occupation was removed from those eligible to be sponsored.
The memo to members focused on one incident where two workers were absent and a third left due to illness, which it said put “extreme risk” on controllers.
Airservices Australia, the agency responsible for air navigation, played down the report, telling the paper, “Like any organisation that operates 24/7, from time to time short-term unexpected absences mean that some controllers are asked to work longer shifts when it is safe to do so. This is standard procedure for air navigation service providers around the world.”
The Age claimed the October 2019 bulletin from Civil Air reported “a number of locations around Australia are experiencing critical staffing levels”. It added that overworked staff weren’t having leave approved and were also being threatened with the cancellation of approved holiday.
“The cumulative effect of these issues occurring over a sustained period of time with no end in sight creates an unsafe work environment,” it said.
“If you do perform operational duty and a serious incident occurs, you will be held to account with potential disciplinary, civil and criminal sanctions.”
In particular, it focused on one occasion where an air traffic control manager overruled a decision by a shift supervisor to reduce traffic volumes when staff were absent.
It said, “Traffic remained unchanged creating an extreme risk upon controllers. One of the controllers worked for four hours without a break. Safety can never be put second.”
Currently, controllers must have a break after two hours of work, which can be extended to three hours in special circumstances.
The paper’s reporter, Richard Baker, linked the shortage to changes to Australia’s skilled working visa, previously called the 457.
In 2017, then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull announced new rules that meant many occupations were no longer eligible to be sponsored, one of which was ‘air traffic controller’.
As the alterations came into effect immediately, workers who hadn’t already submitted the paperwork to the immigration department weren’t able to take up the position.
According to the paper, Airservices chief executive Jason Harfield estimated the changes would affect 38 controllers but would have no adverse effect on safety.