Australia’s Qantas illegally sacked workers during COVID, court rules

Australia’s High Court upholds earlier ruling that the airline broke the law when it outsourced ground handling jobs.

Australia's Qantas fired 1,700 ground staff and replaced them with contractors during the pandemic [File: Mark Baker/AP]

Australia’s flagship carrier Qantas Airways illegally sacked 1,700 ground staff during the COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s top court has ruled.

The High Court of Australia said on Thursday that Qantas interfered with unionised employees’ legal right to take industrial action and collectively bargain when it replaced the workers with contractors.

The ruling follows an appeal by Qantas to an earlier Federal Court decision that the airline broke the law when it outsourced the ground handling jobs as it failed to prove that it was not seeking to prevent workers from taking industrial action in the future.

The decision is the latest blow for Qantas as it grapples with multiple controversies related to its treatment of its customers and workers.

The national carrier has been under fire for allegedly selling 8,000 tickets for flights that were cancelled and lobbying Canberra to block a bid by Qatar Airways to operate more flights to Europe, despite skyrocketing airfares.

Former chief executive Alan Joyce last week announced he would step down two months earlier than planned amid mounting criticism of the airline.

The Transport Workers’ Union (TWU), which fought a two-year court battle against Qantas over the layoffs, hailed the ruling and called on the airline to swiftly compensate the affected workers.

“These workers have been put through hell,” TWU National Secretary Michael Kaine said at a press conference. “Their families have been put through hell. Their lives have been dislocated. Some of them forever.”

“The action that you can take immediately is to hurry back before the Federal Court now and do everything you can to expedite compensation for the workers so that they can get some justice and solace for themselves and their families,” Kaine added.

Qantas said it had undergone restructuring and outsourced jobs to survive the pandemic, but it “acknowledges and accepts” the court’s decision.

“As we have said from the beginning, we deeply regret the personal impact the outsourcing decision had on all those affected and we sincerely apologise for that,” the company said in a statement.

“The decision to outsource the remainder of the airline’s ground handling function was made in August 2020, when borders were closed, lockdowns were in place and no COVID vaccine existed,” the airline said.

“The likelihood of a years-long crisis led Qantas to restructure its business to improve its ability to survive and ultimately recover.”

Qantas, which is based in Sydney, last month posted a record pre-tax profit of $2.47 billion Australian dollars ($1.6bn) for the fiscal year ending June, after years of losses due to the pandemic.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies