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Qantas has been found guilty of unlawfully standing down a safety representative at the onset of COVID-19 after he told workers to stop cleaning aircraft that had arrived from China if they felt unsafe doing so.
Former ground crew employee and health and safety representative Theo Seremetidis was vindicated on Thursday after the NSW District Court found Qantas had breached part six of the Work, Health and Safety Act, and had discriminated against him when he was stood down in February 2020.
Qantas was found to have breached the Work, Health and Safety Act after standing down a safety representative who directed employees to stop cleaning aircraft arriving from China at the onset of COVID-19. Credit: Australian Defence Force
It’s the first time uniform work health and safety laws have been tested in criminal court. The SafeWork NSW case was prompted by a complaint from the Transport Workers Union (TWU) on behalf of Seremetidis, who had also expressed concerns with the business over the provision of inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE).
Judge David Russell upheld one of the three charges brought and said Qantas ground services “actively sidelined” Seremetidis by cutting him off from staff, standing him down and barring him from the airport.
“I find that [Qantas] saw the giving of the directions by Seremetidis to cease work as a threat to the conduct of business, and in particular, a threat to the ability of [Qantas] to clean and service aircraft and get them back in the air,” Russell said on Thursday morning.
Qantas launched an investigation into Seremetidis’ conduct soon after standing him down. He never returned to his role because he was one of 1700 ground staff whose roles were outsourced one month later.
This outsourcing was recently found to be unlawful by the High Court following an appeal by Qantas following successive losses in the Federal Court.
The other two charges brought by SafeWork NSW relating to additional matters were dismissed.
Qantas said it acknowledged the verdict and will review the judgment.
“We recognise that the initial stages of the pandemic caused a lot of uncertainty for our people, customers and the business more broadly,” a spokesperson said.
“Our medical and safety teams worked tirelessly to provide daily updates to employees and to put effective controls and procedures in place to help protect our people and customers.”
SafeWork NSW’s initial investigation found workers were made to clean planes arriving from COVID-19 hotspots without COVID-safe training or disinfectant. The safety body alleged the business instead provided cleaners with water and a single rag for multiple tray tables.
Qantas has denied it failed to provide adequate PPE and maintains it held daily COVID-19 briefings on transmission risks and the latest medical updates.
TWU president Richard Olsen said the decision will make workplaces safer.
“How Qantas responds to this verdict will be one of the first tests of the promise made by the airline that it has turned over a new leaf,” Olsen said.
“Every workplace needs a Theo Seremetidis, and this verdict will enhance the strength and the courage of health and safety representatives to protect their colleagues.”
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