Over the next two weeks, the District Court of NSW will be asked to determine whether Qantas’ standing down of a health and safety representative at the start of the pandemic was discriminatory conduct in criminal breach of the WHS Act.
The hearing follows a decision by the safety regulator that it had sufficient evidence to prosecute Qantas for targeting and standing down Theo Seremetidis as a result of his advice to workers on their rights to cease unsafe work.
At the time, workers were being made to clean planes arriving from covid hotspots in China without adequate personal protective equipment, disinfectant or covid-safe training.
Mr Seremetidis never worked another day at Qantas. Exactly one year after he was stood down, he and his workmates were illegally outsourced by the airline.
The TWU has welcomed the prosecution – the first of its kind in Australia, highlighting the seriousness of Qantas’ conduct.
The case is not an isolated incident, but is linked to Qantas failing to provide evidence of compliance with workplace health and safety to address workers’ concerns about their exposure to covid, despite requests from Mr Seremetidis in his capacity as a health and safety representative.
TWU NSW/Queensland Branch Secretary Richard Olsen said:
“Theo took his role as a health and safety representative seriously. He was highly trained and had issued several provisional improvement notices on Qantas in accordance with his powers and functions under the WHS Act. He cared deeply about the safety of his colleagues who were responsible for cleaning Qantas aircraft, particularly as the pandemic kicked off and workers were not provided proper PPE or even the basic provision of disinfectant.
“This is a landmark prosecution and a crucial test case for discriminatory conduct against trained worker representatives protected by robust workplace health and safety legislation.
“This criminal trial will be historic. The safety regulator found it had sufficient evidence to prosecute Qantas in the first ever case of its kind. The matter now falls into the hands of the judge, who will be asked to determine beyond reasonable doubt that Qantas was in criminal breach of the WHS Act.
“We welcome the prosecution and commend the bravery of our member Theo, taking on a known corporate bully like Qantas in an unprecedented criminal case. He has our backing all the way.”
TWU National Secretary Michael Kaine said:
“No other company in Australia has ever faced these serious criminal charges. If the District Court agrees that Qantas was in criminal breach of the WHS Act by targeting a trained health and safety rep, it will achieve Qantas yet another accolade for attacking workers – alongside the crown for the largest case of illegal sackings in the country as determined twice by the Federal Court.
“The standing down of Theo coincided with Qantas’ efforts to downplay the deadly virus in public commentary and worker briefings. Shortly after, a covid cluster occurred in the Qantas baggage room in Adelaide, which almost claimed the life of one of our members.
“Over the last two years, we’ve seen that Alan Joyce and other overpaid executives receive multimillion dollar bonuses for finding new and perverse ways to tear down workers and trash standards at our once-cherished national carrier. We need a Safe and Secure Skies Commission to take the excessive greed out of aviation and restore it to a fair, safe and reliable industry.”
Upon request from the TWU, a SafeWork inspection took place of Qantas’ fleet presentation at Sydney airport shortly after Mr Seremetidis was stood down, with the inspector reporting they:
“observed workers wiping over multiple tray tables with the same wet cloth with no disinfectant and cleaning unknown liquids on floors and surfaces.”
The report also says cleaners were: “required to handle wet and used tissues, used face masks, soiled nappies and the workers advised they occasionally have to clean vomit and blood off surfaces. PPE [personal protective equipment] was not mandated for the majority of these tasks.”
The criminal charges, of which there are multiple, each carry a maximum penalty of $594,021, plus any compensation that may be awarded to Theo.
On Friday 18th November the High Court will hear oral submissions to determine whether it should grant Qantas special leave to appeal two emphatic Federal Court rulings that it illegally sacked nearly 2,000 workers to avoid enterprise bargaining rights.