The High Court has ruled that Qantas illegally outsourced more than 1700 baggage handler jobs.
Qantas attempted to appeal against two Federal Court rulings that found that it illegally sacked baggage handlers, cleaners and ground staff to replace them with cheaper workers sourced from labour-hire companies, but the High Court rejected the appeal.
The Federal Court found that in November 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when the majority of air travel was halted and the airline’s business was in decline, Qantas seized a “vanishing window of opportunity” to get rid of its unionised baggage handlers at 10 Australian airports, in part to avoid potential industrial action.
The Transport Workers Union argued this breached the Fair Work Act. The Federal Court agreed.
Speaking after today’s (13 September) High Court decision, Damien, one of the illegally outsourced Qantas workers, said: “The last three years have been horrendous for my colleagues and myself.
“A lot of us haven’t found other employment. There have been relationship breakdowns. People have had to sell their homes.
“Now everybody knows how Qantas treats its workers. Today is vindication for what we’ve been fighting for over the last three years.”
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) said, “Qantas has been the poster child of exploiting loopholes to outsource jobs and suppress the wages and conditions of its workers.
“Today is a huge victory for the workers. The court of public opinion had already delivered their judgement on Qantas’s disrespect to their customers and their workforce,” ACTU Secretary Sally McManus said.
Since the mass sacking, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) reported that complaints about Qantas and its services increased by 68 per cent in 2022.
Maurice Blackburn Lawyers principal Josh Bornstein said that although the baggage handlers will finally receive justice, “the case isn’t over”.
“Our legal team will now ask the Federal Court to hear claims for compensation for all adversely impacted workers and then seek a substantial penalty against Qantas,” he said.
“Qantas argued in the High Court that it should be permitted to sack workers merely because they wanted to bargain with the airline. Had the appeal succeeded, it would have greenlighted the further de-unionisation of the labour market by big business,” Mr Bornstein said.
“Qantas has fought this case every step of the way. For three long years, the sacked workers have waited for justice. During that time, the company has profited significantly from its illegal conduct.
“When companies like Qantas outsource workers, they effectively avoid having to bargain with their labour. Instead, they engage labour hire agencies and dictate to those agencies what they are willing to pay for labour.
“Outsourcing has been one of the reasons that employees have lost the ability to obtain real wage increases. Qantas engaged in a collective bargaining avoidance scheme and thankfully, the High Court has recognised that it was illegal.”
Qantas has issued a statement acknowledging the High Court decision and the company has apologised for its actions.
“The Federal Court originally found that while there were valid and lawful commercial reasons for the outsourcing, it could not rule out that Qantas also had an unlawful reason – namely, avoiding future industrial action. The High Court has now effectively upheld this interpretation,” it said.
“The decision to outsource the remainder of the airline’s ground handling function was made in August 2020 when borders were closed, lockdowns were in place and no COVID vaccine existed. The likelihood of a years’ long crisis led Qantas to restructure its business to improve its ability to survive and ultimately recover.
“As we have said from the beginning, we deeply regret the personal impact the outsourcing decision had on all those affected and we sincerely apologise for that.”
A prior decision by the Federal Court ruled out reinstatement of workers, but it will consider penalties for the breach and compensation for relevant employees, which will factor in redundancy payments already made by Qantas.