Union Wins Ruling That Qantas Mass Sacking of 1,700 Workers Was Illegal
Qantas Airways fired 1,700 ground staff in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic and replaced the workers with outside contractors to cut costs. The Transport Workers’ Union took the airline to court over violations of the Fair Work Act, which protects employee rights. After three years, the Australian High Court ruled that Qantas’s action was illegal.
“The last three years have been horrendous for my colleagues and myself. Now everybody knows how Qantas treats its workers. Today is vindication for what we’ve been fighting for.” – Damien Pollard, one of the illegally sacked workers.
Qantas Airways, the largest airline in Australia, decided to outsource some 2,000 ground handling jobs at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in order to make A$100 million in cost savings. In an effort to retain their members’ jobs, the Transport Workers’ Union submitted a proposal to compete for the work, but was underbid by a cheaper third-party contractor in August 2020.
“This is a dark day as Qantas management rejects a thorough and competitive bid by its highly skilled and dedicated workers to keep their own jobs. To reject its own workers like this is spiteful and will hurt the airline deeply.” - Michael Kaine, Transport Workers’ Union national secretary.
The Transport Workers’ Union swung into action and started organizing regular protests and petitions to parliament. The union noted that the company had received over A$500 million in government support as of mid-2020, including A$267 million under the JobKeeper program, a sum greater than the projected A$100 million in cost savings.
On December 9, 2020, the union took Qantas to court over violations of the Fair Work Act, contending that the outsourcing decision deprived workers of their right to organize. A year later the Federal Court ruled that while Qantas had “sound commercial reasons” for outsourcing, they did not prove that preventing employee organizing was not also a motivation. The company appealed.
Over the next two years, Qantas took in over A$2 billion in pandemic-related government subsidies. It continued to fight the Transport Workers’ Union in the appeals court. Meanwhile a whistleblower told the media that the outsourced ground staff was routinely losing bags, and the company was ranked as the airline with the worst on-time performance and cancellation rates.
High Court Ruling
In September 2023, the Australian High Court ruled in the union’s favor. Legal experts hailed the ruling as a significant victory for unionized workers. (CEO Alan Joyce resigned in disgrace shortly before the ruling was issued.) Workers say their next step is to determine how much compensation they are owed.
“The likelihood of a years’ long crisis led Qantas to restructure its business to improve its ability to survive and ultimately recover. We deeply regret the personal impact the outsourcing decision had on all those affected and we sincerely apologise for that.” - Qantas official response.
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📸 Transport Workers' Union