‘Justice’: Qantas workers’ ‘horrific treatment’

Qantas’s decision to outsource almost 1700 ground staff during the pandemic was illegal, the High Court has ruled. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gaye Gerard

A unanimous ruling to reject Qantas’s appeal in the High Court has been welcomed by the Albanese government.

The airline on Wednesday lost its battle to overturn a Federal Court ruling that it illegally sacked almost 1700 workers and outsourced their jobs during the pandemic.

“The outsourcing decision was ‘adverse action’ within the meaning of the Fair Work Act 2009 because it altered the position of the affected employees of Qantas and (its subsidiary) Qantas Ground Services to their prejudice,” the majority judgment by the High Court read.

It puts an end to this chapter of the two-year fight between the Transport Workers Union and the 1683 Qantas ground staff who were stood down in November 2020.

Qantas has suffered a fresh blow, with the High Court finding the airline’s move to stand down 1700 ground staff during the pandemic was illegal. Picture: NCA Newswire / Gaye Gerard

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke, who intervened to argue against the appeal, used the landmark ruling to lash the Coalition in a question time attack.

“We welcome today that justice has been given for those workers after experiencing horrific treatment from a company that those opposite made excuses for,” Mr Burke said.

“That those opposite made allowances for and are now in a situation where, after we have stood shoulder to shoulder (with the workers), those workers now can see some justice.”

Speaking directly to the sacked workers, Mr Burke reassured them they “did nothing wrong”.

“Qantas broke the law and the government of the time left you stranded,” he said.

“The difference between that government and this government now could not be more stark.”

Qantas will now head back to the Federal Court and could be ordered to pay hefty penalties and “significant” compensation for the sacked workers.

Sacked workers Damien Pollard, Don Dixon and Max Carias sat alongside TWU national secretary Michael Kaine, ACTU secretary Sally McManus and Labor’s Tony Sheldon in the Canberra courtroom.

Workers, their families and union officials cheer as they walk out of the High Court in Canberra. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

They pumped their fists in celebration as the justices read out their unanimous verdict.

Outside court, the group was jovial, hugging and cheering as they celebrated the victory in what they called a “David and Goliath” struggle.

“We were just ordinary people going to work and were nobody special. But today, we feel that we’re special,” Mr Dixon said.

“I‘d like to say to the corporate people of Australia – I think the gravy train has pulled into the station. It’s time to get off.”

Mr Kaine told reporters the decision was vindication for the workers who had been to “hell and back” over the past three years and called for an immediate apology from Qantas.

“This has been a spiteful corporate dictatorship, and the board has been right behind Alan Joyce … every step of the way,” he said.

“There are serious consequences that should flow from this. Richard Goyder and the board should go.

“But their last act before they walk out the door should be to rip away from Alan Joyce, the obscene bonuses that he has taken as these families suffer. The bonuses have to go, the board has to go.”

TWU SA/ NT branch secretary Ian Smith celebrates the decision. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Martin Ollman

Mr Joyce, who had served as chief executive for 15 years, announced his immediate resignation from the airline, bringing forward his retirement by two months.

Qantas had argued it could not have breached workplace rights of employees because they did not have the right to take protected industrial action at the time of the decision to outsource.

In a statement, a spokesperson said the airline “acknowledges and accepts the High Court’s decision” and “sincerely apologises” for the personal impact of the outsourcing decision.

“The Federal Court originally found that while there were valid and lawful commercial reasons for the outsourcing, it could not rule out that Qantas also had an unlawful reason – namely, avoiding future industrial action,” they said in a statement issued after the ruling.

“The High Court has now effectively upheld this interpretation.”

The ground staff worked at 10 airports across Australia until the airline dismissed them.

The full Federal Court upheld the decision in 2022, but the court did not force Qantas to reinstate the sacked workers.

Lawyers representing the workers will now seek hefty compensation, but the TWU stopped short of saying how much they’d be fighting for when asked on Wednesday.

“(The workers) had jobs ripped away from them illegally. They’re entitled to still be in their positions and they need to be compensated for that,” he said.

“It is important that there is a clear signal sent to employers in the future that this type of conduct should not occur.”

Qantas Chief Alan Joyce
Senator Tony Sheldon called for the airline’s board to strip outgoing chief executive Alan Joyce of his bonuses and to resign from their positions. Picture NCA NewsWire / Aaron Francis

Mr Dixon, who worked for the company for 20 years, said he hoped the “hell of a fight” over the three years would be reflected in the compensation awarded.

Qantas said the decision to outsource was made during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in August 2020 “when borders were closed, lockdowns were in place and no vaccine existed”.

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

“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.

Senator Sheldon said the case was evidence of why the federal government’s second tranche of industrial relations reform was needed.

“We’ve got to close the Joyce loophole and stop those companies from undermining decent and fair bargaining and negotiated agreements,” he said.

Qantas has faced a torrent of criticism in recent months over cancelled flights, lost luggage and allegations of deliberately slowing refunds.

Public furore came to a head after the airline revealed a super-sized $2.47bn profit result while it slashed costs and struggled to offer adequate customer service.

A class-action lawsuit over pandemic-era refunds, an ACCC investigation over selling cancelled fares, the refusal to repay $2.5bn in government subsidies received during the pandemic, and a poor showing by Mr Joyce at a senate hearing has added to the airline’s woes.

Qantas also became caught up in further controversy over the federal government’s decision to deny Qatar Airways application to increase its capacity into eastern Australia, thereby reducing competition in the aviation industry.

The Coalition on Wednesday introduced a private members Bill to the Senate to restore the watchdog’s oversight of the domestic aviation market that ended earlier this year.