Australian flag carrier Qantas has been charged with breaches of workplace safety law after it laid off and then fired an employee who complained airline that staff could be exposed to COVID-19 when cleaning an aircraft that arrived in Sydney from China early in the pandemic. The airline stood down an elected health and safety representative in February 2020, after he allegedly told colleagues it was unsafe to board and clean an aircraft arriving from Shanghai, according to media reports in Australia.
The incident prompted SafeWork NSW to investigate Qantas for possible discriminatory conduct against the health and safety representative, and the watchdog confirmed on Tuesday it had filed charges against the airline in the District Court of NSW, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. The charges were laid under section 104 of the NSW Work Health and Safety Act, which prevents employers from discriminating against a worker for raising safety concerns or carrying out their role as a health and safety representative.
“The charges relate to [Qantas] standing down a worker who raised concerns about potential exposure of workers to COVID-19 while cleaning aircraft in early 2020,” a SafeWork spokesman said in a statement. “As the matter is before the court, no further information can be provided at this time.”
Qantas has previously said that it instructed the employee not to attend work while it investigated him for violations of workplace policies, including an alleged attempt to incite unprotected industrial action. Following the incident, Qantas said the employee’s concerns about COVID-19 were unjustified and “against the advice of health authorities”.
However, three weeks later SafeWork NSW ordered Qantas to do more to protect staff and customers from COVID-19. That came after inspectors saw Qantas using the same cloth to wipe multiple tray tables without disinfectant and handling used tissues and face masks without having to wear protective equipment, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
The stood down employee lost his job when Qantas decided to sack and outsource all 2000 of its in-house ground handlers in November 2020. The Federal Court ruled in July that move was illegal because it was partly motivated by a desire to avoid future industrial disputes with the highly unionised workforce.