SafeWork NSW has served a notice of a formal investigation on Qantas and their CEO Alan Joyce related to claims that the company has committed serious offences over the suspension of an aircraft cleaner who raised concerns about workers being exposed to the coronavirus.
As a result, Qantas faces the first prosecution of its kind in Australia, with the airline now facing multiple breaches for “discriminatory conduct and prohibited behaviour” against the worker, who is also a trained and elected Health and Safety Representative.
Each breach carries a fine of $500,000.
The Sydney worker was stood down on February 2. Qantas has refused to reinstate the worker.
In a move that vindicated the worker’s concerns, SafeWork NSW issued Improvement Notices on Qantas in March, reflecting the airline’s “inadequate system of work used to clean planes” with aircraft cleaners forced to wipe tray tables with the same dirty cloths and handle blood, vomit, soiled nappies, used masks and tissues without protective gear. The Regulator’s Improvement Notices stated that Qantas was at risk of exposing workers to an infectious disease.
TWU NSW Branch Secretary Richard Olsen said it was vital that workplace health and safety representatives had the full backing of the law and the regulator to ensure workers got the protections they need.
“If safety reps at Qantas can’t stand up to unsafe work practices, then no worker is safe. The TWU believes there is ample evidence to prove that Qantas engaged in discriminatory and prohibited behaviour,” said Mr Olsen.
“It is incomprehensible to the TWU that the Sydney worker was stood down due to his concerns for his co-workers. Now with the company wide stand down, Qantas have put their own internal investigation on hold, leaving the worker uncertain of his future, and we are watching the company scramble to manage their own actions.”
“Qantas’s behaviour from the start of this pandemic has been outrageous. It has refused to listen to workers’ legitimate concerns and instead shut them down. This has had a massive impact on the entire workforce during a very stressful time as many people have been afraid to raise concerns. This is not the way to conduct a safe and efficient airline,” he added.
Eleven Qantas baggage handlers at Adelaide Airport have tested positive to the coronavirus this week, with up to 100 workers potentially exposed including TWU union officials. The TWU has written to Qantas demanding information and documents under workplace health and safety laws about procedures in place to protect workers. The union also wrote to Adelaide Airport about workers from various companies who have been potentially exposed.
“With Qantas baggage handlers in another state now infected there have clearly been fundamental problems in how Qantas has managed this across its network. We demand that the worker Qantas stood down in Sydney is reinstated and we demand that the airline steps up and begins acting responsibly. This must be done to protect workers but also the travelling public,” said Mr Olsen.
Timeline leading to Qantas prosecution
January 27 through to February 2: The HSR, an aircraft cleaner, asks Qantas about COVID-19 measures, and for evidence on consultation and compliance with Work Health and Safety regarding COVID-19, he gets brushed off.
January 31: Qantas sends aircraft cleaners in Sydney letters threatening disciplinary action including sacking if they refuse to work on planes from China. Qantas states the risk to workers is “negligible”.
January 31: Qantas GP (not an infectious disease specialist) informs workers that COVID-19 Can’t be caught from surfaces, and again that risk is “negligible”.
February 1: Government releases information that COVID-19 could be contracted from surfaces.
February 1: Federal Government announces a ban on passengers flying from China. Australian citizens and permanent residents are exempt but must self-isolate after arriving. On the same day Qantas says it will suspend flights from China, effective from February 9.
February 2: Qantas stands down an aircraft cleaner, a trained and elected Health and Safety Representative, for advising colleagues regarding their concerns. Qantas management confirm to a TWU Official that he was stood down due to giving the direction to cease unsafe work, and allegedly causing anxiety to workers for giving the direction.
February 3: The Transport Workers’ Union of NSW put in a request for service to SafeWork NSW regarding the standing down of the worker noting that the worker was stood down by
Qantas management a short time before flights from China arrived. Qantas conducted a “Toolbox talk” with other workers while the HSR was being stood down.
February 6: Qantas states in a media statement that the HSR was stood down for providing misinformation to workers.
February 7: Qantas change their tune about why they stood the HSR down, and inform him that he was being investigated for spreading misinformation, and inciting unprotected industrial action. He found this out in the media on 6 February before he was told by the company what the formal allegations were.
March 5: Safe Work NSW concludes a report following the standing down of the cleaner and issues Improvement Notices. It’s report states, “workers and other persons may be exposed to a risk of injury or illness from the inadequate system of work used to clean planes that may have transported passengers with an infectious disease”.
The inspector reported they “observed workers wiping over multiple tray tables with the same wet cloth with no disinfectant and cleaning unknown liquids on floors and surfaces.” It 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 gear] was not mandated for the majority of these tasks.”
The Improvement Notices also included directions to Qantas to consult properly with the workforce. Qantas subsequently stated that they were seeking to challenge the Improvement Notices issued by the Regulator, but failed to follow through on this statement. They did not lodge an appeal
March 11: The World Health Organisation declares a global pandemic.
March 18: The Fair Work Commission releases a statement stating that employees who do not work, because they have a reasonable concern about an imminent risk to their health and safety, are not taking industrial action.
March 27: SafeWork NSW serves notice on Alan Joyce and Qantas informing the airline it will formally investigate them and that they may face prosecution under section 104 of the NSW Work Health and Safety Act 2011. Section 104 stops individuals and companies from engaging in discriminatory behaviour for prohibited reasons. The legislation states that health and safety representatives have protections under the Act when exercising their powers and functions, and it is unlawful to cause any detriment to a worker’s employment for speaking out about, or acting on, safety.
March 31: Eleven baggage handlers in Adelaide test positive for the virus. Up to 100 workers including TWU officials have potentially been exposed.