Qantas loses High Court appeal over sacking of 1,700 baggage handlers and cleaners during COVID-19 pandemic

Qantas loses High Court appeal over sacking of 1,700 baggage handlers and cleaners during COVID-19 pandemic
  • PublishedSeptember 14, 2023

Qantas has issued its first-ever apology to workers after the High Court found the airline acted illegally when it sacked 1,700 ground crew staff members during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The jobs of baggage handlers and cleaners at 10 airports were outsourced, as the airline faced a dramatic decline in business.

Qantas maintained it made the decision for sound commercial reasons after its business plummeted by more than 90 per cent.

But the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) told the High Court the airline had also been motivated to head off industrial action when things returned to normal.

The union said the sackings were in breach of the Fair Work Act, which prohibited actions that interfered with a worker’s rights.

Qantas planes sit parked at Sydney Airport, with the city's skyline in the background.
The Transport Workers’ Union argued Qantas broke the law when it sacked 1,700 ground staff during the pandemic.(ABC News: John Gunn)

After losing twice in the Federal Court, Qantas then took the case to the High Court, which was asked to consider a more nuanced question about whether the workers had the rights asserted by the union at the time of the outsourcing.

But on Wednesday, the High Court unanimously rejected the appeal by Qantas.

The ruling clears the way for the workers to seek compensation.

The Federal Court had previously been asked to consider reinstatement but that was found to be impractical.

In a statement on Wednesday afternoon, Qantas said it would reach out to the TWU to discuss the possibility of an out of court compensation settlement for affected workers “as reasonably and quickly as possible”.

The TWU said it has not yet been approached by the airline, and would attend next week’s case management hearing.

Spill the board, compensate workers: union

Former Qantas baggage handler Damien Pollard said the case in the High Court on Wednesday had “The Castle vibes”.

The Canberra-based worker described the outcome as “a fairy tale come true”.

As the workers emerged celebrating from the court on Wednesday morning, the TWU used its victory to demand new Qantas chief executive Vanessa Hudson compensate affected staff immediately.

“Hurry back before the Federal Court now and do everything you can to expedite compensation for these workers, so that they can get some justice and some solace for themselves and their families,” TWU national secretary Michael Kaine said outside court.

“Qantas workers have made history today. It has been three years and 20 days since Alan Joyce first announced the decision to outsource these workers.”

The TWU also said it wanted the illegal sackings to be a trigger to spill the Qantas board.

“The final act of this [Qantas] board should be to strip Alan Joyce of his bonuses and follow him out the door,” Mr Kaine said.

“The Joyce regime has been toppled, but the airline cannot achieve the reset necessary for its survival under the same board that resided over the largest case of illegal sackings in Australian corporate history.”

A man wearing a suit and tie with glasses on stands up and leans his right arm on the back of a chair in an ornate meeting room,
Alan Joyce retired from Qantas two months ahead of schedule, after spending 15 years as the airline’s chief executive.(AAP: Joel Carrett)

‘You did nothing wrong’

Speaking in Question Time on Wednesday afternoon, Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke said the federal government welcomed the High Court’s decision, and congratulated former Qantas workers and the Transport Workers’ Union.

“Some of those 1,700 illegally sacked workers are here today in the public gallery right now. I met with three of them just before Question Time,” Mr Burke said.

“Damien Pollard — some of you may have seen him in the media conference outside the High Court — he referred to a sense of justification and redemption.

“I say to the workers who were illegally sacked that you did nothing wrong. Qantas broke the law. And the government of the time left you stranded.”

Mr Burke used his remaining time to criticise the former industrial relations and transport ministers, Christian Porter and Michael McCormack, for comments they made in response to Qantas’ sacking of workers.

“The industrial relations minister of the day said it was, I quote, a ‘good model’,” Mr Burke said.

“The transport minister of the day said that ‘I know the decisions are in the best interests of the company going forward’ and Senator [Michaelia] Cash, at the time, said that ‘this is a commercial decision for Qantas and Qantas are entitled to make those decisions’.

“Well, you are not entitled to illegally sacked people.

“We intervened to protect the rights of those Qantas workers, and we welcome today that justice has been given for those workers after experiencing horrific treatment from a company that those opposite made excuses for.”

Tony Burke wearing a blue suit stands up in the House of Representatives while Anthony Albanese and front benchers are seated.
Tony Burke uses Question Time to reiterate the federal government’s support of Qantas’ illegally sacked workers.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

Qantas accepts decision, apologises

In a statement, Qantas said it accepted the High Court’s decision and issued its first-ever apology to workers.

The airline also maintained its decision was made to ensure the survival of the company while in the throes of the pandemic.

“Borders were closed, lockdowns were in place and no COVID vaccine existed,” the Qantas statement said.

Wednesday’s verdict by the High Court is not the end of Qantas’ legal battles.

Last month, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) launched legal action against Qantas over allegations it sold tickets for flights that had already been cancelled in 2022.

The ACCC’s chair, Gina Cass-Gottlieb, has confirmed the watchdog is pursuing penalties of more than $250 million for the “ghost flights” tickets.

Separately, Qantas is facing a class action over flight credits, as well as criminal prosecution in New South Wales by the state’s safety regulator for allegedly standing down a health and safety representative during the pandemic.

Qantas has previously stated that it took the ACCC and class action allegations seriously, and has denied it acted illegally when it stood down the health and safety representative.


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