Qantas faces $500k fine for criminal act

Qantas illegally stood down a worker after he raised health and safety concerns during the Covid pandemic. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Andrew Henshaw

Qantas is facing fines of up to half a million dollars after it was found guilty of illegally standing down an employee who raised concerns about cleaning aircraft in the early days of the Covid pandemic.

Lift truck driver Theo Seremetidis was stood down from his role with Qantas Ground Services in February 2020 after he gave his colleagues a direction to stop unsafe work.

As the elected health and safety representative, Mr Seremetidis was concerned about the risk of exposure to the virus for employees who cleaned aircraft inbound from China.

Theo Seremetidis was stood down by Qantas after telling colleagues to stop cleaning planes arriving from China without proper safety equipment. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gaye Gerard

On November 16 last year, Judge David Russell found Qantas had engaged in “discriminatory conduct” when it breached workplace health and safety laws by standing down the “conscientious” worker.

“I find that (Qantas) saw the giving of the directions by Mr Seremetidis to cease work as a threat to the conduct of business and, in particular, a threat to the ability of (Qantas) to clean and service aircraft and get them back in the air,” he said.

On Wednesday, Qantas agreed to pay Mr Seremetidis $21,000 for economic and non-economic loss he endured as a result of the airline’s illegal action.

The NSW District Court heard the airline would pay $6000 as compensation for economic loss and $15,000 as compensation for the “hurt and humiliation caused” to Mr Seremetidis.

Prosecutor Matthew Moir argued Qantas should also pay a hefty fine and receive a conviction for the “egregious breach”.

He told the court the airline had prioritised its commercial interests over the safety of its employees when it “actively sidelined” Mr Seremetidis after he questioned safety protocols.

“(Qantas) was not entitled to override the legitimate concerns held by him and to do so in a punitive manner,” Mr Moir said.

“The standing down had a prolonged impact on Mr Seremetidis and it had a prolonged impact on the people in his work group for whom he was a representative.”

Mr Seremetidis was flanked by TWU national Secretary Michael Kaine (left) and TWU NSW/QLD State Secretary Richard Olsen (right) in court. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gaye Gerard

The court was told Mr Seremetidis’ colleagues could not contact him about workplace safety concerns while he was stood down.

He did not return to work and instead became one of the 1700 staff members who were terminated during the pandemic and unlawfully replaced with outsourced staff.

Mr Moir said the decision to stand the lift driver down was “deliberate” and made by “senior people” with full knowledge of Qantas’ workplace health and safety obligations.

“The decision to stand down Mr Seremetidis was not a decision made in the heat of the moment,” he said.

“(The decision makers) all held substantial positions of power over Mr Seremetidis.”

The NSW Safework case against Qantas is the first of its kind in Australia.

Qantas’ barrister Bruce Hodgkinson SC said there was no precedent for the judge to consider, only a maximum penalty of $500,000.

“There is no scale,” he said.

“These events took place in circumstances that no one had dealt with.”

Qantas apologised for illegally standing down Mr Seremetidis. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Sarah Marshall

Mr Hodgkinson accepted the decision to stand Mr Seremetidis was “wrong” but said it was a result of the company taking Covid concerns seriously.

“I have been asked to acknowledge the impact that this whole episode and the proceedings have had on Mr Seremetidis and to apologise to him,” Qantas’ barrister said.

The apology came after Mr Seremetidis told media “the smallest thing Qantas could have done was say sorry, but they haven’t done that”.

He said he felt “empowered” that the “David and Goliath battle” was finally coming to an end.

“This was never about compensation for me, but about holding Qantas to account for its actions and standing up for health and safety representatives’ ability to carry out their duties to keep workplaces safe,” the former Qantas employee said.

Transport Workers Union National Secretary Michael Kaine hailed Mr Seremetidis as a “workplace hero”.

“He’s fought hard for four years to hold this corporate criminal thug to account and today he’s done it justice,” he said.

Mr Kaine said the maximum $500,000 fine for Qantas’ “criminal conduct” was a “drop in the ocean” when compared to the $3.72bn profit the airline amassed over the past 18 months.

“Qantas acts illegally and just factors it in as a cost of business,” he claimed.

“This is a company that consistently has said to their community: ‘we’re above the law’.”

Mr Kaine praised Mr Seremetidis for taking on Qantas. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Nikki Short

Mr Kaine highlighted the High Court case regarding the illegal sacking of 1700 ground services workers, action taken by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission against the airline, and a class-action suit.

In a statement, Qantas reiterated its apology for the impact of its decision on Mr Seremetidis.

“Qantas has agreed to pay compensation for Theo Seremetidis in relation to an incident that occurred in the early stages of the pandemic,” a spokesperson said.

“Safety has always been our number one priority and we continue to encourage our employees to report safety related matters.”

The matter will return to court next week.