Qantas directed staff to continue working at Adelaide Airport despite knowing workers had been exposed to the coronavirus.
The TWU is compiling a dossier of evidence on how Qantas allowed the virus to spread at Adelaide Airport which it will be submitting to SA Health and Safe Work SA in the coming days. SA Health has confirmed 750 Qantas workers have been ordered into quarantine in order to contain the cluster, which now includes 18 baggage handlers, three other workers and 13 close contacts.
Information the TWU is gathering also includes evidence that workers had been complaining about filthy conditions and lack of cleaning in staff rest and eating areas at Adelaide Airport for months.
The TWU is submitting requests for information to Qantas under lawful entry powers at airports across Australia, as more cabin crew and ground crew contract the virus. The Union is also taking Federal Court action against Qantas over its refusal to pay sick leave.
TWU National Secretary Michael Kaine said workers across the Qantas Group were angry because the airline had continually downplayed the risk of exposure and spread and refused to put in place systems to protect them. There are now nearly 60 cases of infection among Qantas workers.
“We are seeking the advice of senior counsel on how best to hold Qantas to account. Carnival Cruises is being investigated over allegedly withholding information from the authorities. Qantas has serious questions to answer over how it has handled the exposure and spread of the virus among its staff and into the community,” Kaine said.
“The evidence we have gathered so far shows that Qantas knowingly exposed other workers to the coronavirus after it became clear that a worker at Adelaide Airport had contracted the virus. Instead of directing workers who had been in contact with that worker to self-isolate, Qantas directed staff to continue coming to work. Others went on to contract the virus and no doubt spread it to even more staff and their families. We want a full investigation into how Qantas mismanaged the situation in Adelaide and will be turning over evidence to both SA Health and Safe Work SA,” said TWU SA Branch Secretary Ian Smith.
“Qantas cabin crew, pilots, aircraft cleaners, caterers, baggage handlers, freight workers and others are very angry. Since the start of this virus outbreak, workers have been pleading with Qantas to take it seriously and put in place systems to protect them and limit the spread. Instead Qantas kept telling staff the risk was ‘negligible’ and when infections did occur the airline ignored all the medical advice and allowed it to spread, not just to its own workers but to their families and others in the community. Qantas even went as far as suspending a worker at Sydney Airport who raised concerns. Qantas workers feel very let down by their employer,” Kaine said.
Qantas in several correspondence to workers and the TWU described the risk of exposure as “negligible” and “low”. In an email to the TWU on February 10, Qantas stated that “no new policies or operating procedures have been developed, or need to be developed specifically in response to the Novel Coronavirus”.
The TWU is filing legal requests for information to Qantas stating it believes the airline has failed to reduce the risk of infection to workers, “resulting in infection of a significant number of workers in its operations in Sydney and interstate, and the likely exposure of hundreds more”.
SafeWork NSW is investigating Qantas after it suspended the aircraft cleaner, who was a trained health and safety representative, after he raised concerns about exposure to the virus.
The investigation follows a damning report by Safe Work NSW which found Qantas was risking exposing workers and passengers to the virus during an investigation into how Qantas cleaned its planes, after a cleaner was suspended for raising concerns. The safety regulator said aircraft cleaners are forced to wipe tray tables with the same dirty cloths and handle blood, vomit, soiled nappies, used masks and tissues without protective gear and without using disinfectant. The Regulator’s Improvement Notices also stated that Qantas was at risk of exposing workers to an infectious disease.
The worker remains suspended and Qantas has yet to meet the requirements laid out by SafeWork NSW.