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The Transport Workers Union has won a partial victory in its federal court case against Qantas over the company’s decision to outsource 2,000 ground-handling jobs.
The federal court on Friday ruled that Qantas was in part driven by the fact that many of the axed workers were union members with stronger bargaining capabilities.
Justice Michael Lee said it was difficult to establish the motivations behind the outsourcing decision, but he was not convinced the airlinewas not in some way trying to limit workers taking industrial action.
The judgment noted that the TWU argued the airline took advantage of a “vanishing window of opportunity to rid itself of the influence of the Union” presented by the Covid pandemic.
Qantas maintained the outsourcing measure was a necessary financial measure that could save $100m annually.
It is unclear what impact the judgment will have on the workers, with the TWU and Qantas set to argue how the matter should proceed.
While Lee said the legal action was not a “test case” on outsourcing, the TWU’s national secretary Michael Kaine heralded the decision as a “watershed moment for workers in Australia”.
Kaine said the union would now be “seeking meetings with Qantas” to return axed workers to their former jobs.
“This ruling calls a halt to shifting responsibility for workers and outsourcing them onto third parties on a low cost, take-it or leave-it contract… Qantas management have serious questions to answer after this judgment,” Kaine said.
Qantas plans to appeal the decision. In a statement, it also insisted that the “judgment does not mean Qantas is required to reinstate workers or pay compensation or penalties”.
John Gissing, Qantas Group executive, said “the TWU has put forward its persecution complex that our decision to save $100 million a year in the middle of a global downturn was really about stopping them from walking off the job at some time in the future”.
“The focus of the TWU’s case was on a few documents that made reference to industrial action while ignoring the hundreds that don’t. Any company acting prudently has to consider all operational risks when making a significant decision, but a reference to the risk of industrial action risk does not automatically mean that it’s a reason for the decision,” Gissing said.
Qantas, which is on track to receive $2bn in government support during the pandemic, furiously denies separate claims by the Transport Workers Union that recent incidents involving planes being damaged on the tarmac are due to the different training and operation standards of its new baggage handling, ramp work, push back driving and cabin cleaning services.
A survey of workers who lost their jobs, conducted by the TWU – which brought the case against Qantas over the outsourcing – found some had ended up working for the airline again on poorer conditions. Three-quarters of the workers surveyed had not been able to secure full-time employment since being let go by the airline.
One worker surveyed, who contracted Covid while working at Adelaide airport in May last year, said they had struggled to find new work as a result of long-term Covid health issues.
“I had to sell my family home as I wasn’t sure I could pay the mortgage and now the property market has gone up and left me behind. It has left me unsure of my future as I have been a ramp worker for 24 years and it is what I know and what I’m good at,” one worker said.
Another worker, who lost his job but is now back working for Qantas via a third-party labour firm, said he and fellow workers were made to feel “dirt cheap”.
The union has also pointed to incidents that have occurred since the outsourcing when calling for federal government intervention to investigate the causes of alleged safety breaches.
In one case, the union criticised Qantas for allowing passengers to fly from Darwin to Brisbane after one of Qantas’ aircraft was hit by a baggage loader on the tarmac before taking off.
Other incidents include another baggage loader hitting a plane in Darwin which forced the cancellation of a flight and a similar collision at Perth airport that the union claims “left a gaping hole in the plane”.
Kaine said “Qantas has left the vast majority of its outsourced ground staff desperate for their jobs back”. Regarding safety concerns, Kaine has previously called on the federal government to “start holding Qantas to account and guaranteeing safe air travel”.
“The federal government is continuing to pump public money into Qantas after it outsourced skilled workers and is trashing safety and service standards,” Kaine said.
A Qantas spokesperson, responding to claims outsourcing had affected the safety of its operations, said “the TWU has been trying to discredit the safety of outsourced ground handling, despite the fact the long-term incident rate was double when this work was done in-house”.
Regarding incidents the TWU points to, Qantas has launched an investigation into the damaged aircraft at Darwin airport, while an independent review about the incident in Perth ruled out faulty equipment.
Regarding claims it outsourced the jobs while receiving close to $2bn in government funding during the pandemic, a Qantas spokesperson noted that the airline “has a 70% share of the domestic market and is the only Australian airline that flies internationally, so it’s no surprise that we’ve received a significant proportion of the government assistance for airlines”.
The TWU is calling for the Australian government to take an equity stake in Qantas given the money it has spent on support during the pandemic, with one expert also noting such a move would give the government more influence over how Qantas uses taxpayer funds.