Qantas workers’ distress forms major compensation claim

Duncan Murray |

The Transport Workers Union is suing Qantas over mass sackings during the pandemic.
The Transport Workers Union is suing Qantas over mass sackings during the pandemic.

A major union is hoping to force Qantas to pay millions in compensation to former workers whose jobs were illegally outsourced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Transport Workers Union is suing the airline in the Federal Court over what it says is “the largest case of illegal sackings in Australia’s corporate history”.

The court heard on Monday some of the workers suffered significant psychological distress after losing their jobs and had to take medication to cope.

One worker was taking four Valiums a day, the court heard, while another was prescribed antidepressants

A Qantas employee holds a sign (file image)
Qantas outsourced the roles of almost 1700 ground staff. (Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS)

A court previously found Qantas contravened the Fair Work Act by its decision to outsource the roles of almost 1700 ground staff at 10 Australian airports in late 2020.

The airline fought the case all the way to the High Court, but lost its appeal in September.

Qantas previously claimed the outsourcing would save more than $100 million a year to help cope with the impact of the pandemic on air travel.

The court will hear three test cases of retrenched workers to help determine an appropriate level of financial compensation.

Affidavits from the three former workers were the subject of legal arguments on Monday.

Barrister Mark Gibian SC said one of the workers felt his “depression” at having been retrenched impacted relationships with his family.

“It’s relevant to his hurt and humiliation and distress,” Mr Gibian said.

Another worker said she felt “stressed and anxious” at being forced to look for a new job and took Valium to deal with the anxiety.

“I often felt nauseated because of the anxiety and stopped eating as much,” the woman wrote in her affidavit.

Union lawyer Josh Bornstein said outside court the compensation should be “very, very substantial, running into the many millions of dollars”.

Qantas also faces the prospect of being issued multimillion-dollar penalties for breaching the law.

One of the sacked workers, Don Dixon, told media he was hopeful Qantas would do “the right thing” and compensate impacted workers.

“Three years ago we got thrown out the door unlawfully,” he said.

“We did absolutely nothing wrong, except turn up, do our job, go home and keep the travelling public safe.”

Former Qantas worker Don Dixon (left) with TWU secretary Michael Kaine
Former Qantas worker Don Dixon (left) hopes the airline pays fair compensation. (Duncan Murray/AAP PHOTOS)

TWU national secretary Michael Kaine said the level of compensation could potentially total more than $100 million, which would be paid to workers within three separate groups depending on their level of impact.

He said some workers had lost properties and had “family breakdowns” as a result of losing their jobs.

“These workers have been dragged to hell and back through two painful unsuccessful deals, through a failed mediation process,” he said. 

Mr Bornstein said one of the key issues was the assertion by Qantas it would still have been forced to let workers go during the pandemic if it had not outsourced their roles.

“We argue that the workers would have remained in employment for a significant period of time and as a result are entitled to a significant amount of compensation,” he said.

During Monday’s hearing, Justice Michael Lee blasted union lawyers for failing to bring another claim for compensation – for the loss of membership fees as the result of workers being let go – at the same time as the former employees’ case.

“Why have you sat on your backside and not brought an application for compensation?” he asked Mr Gibian.

“Such a case could have been worked up, seems to me, in a matter of days or hours, not months and months.”

The court heard 716 of the dismissed workers were TWU members, however Justice Lee noted some would likely have found alternative work within the industry and retained their membership.

The judge said he had made efforts for the claim to be heard at the earliest possible time, to allow workers to be paid any compensation quickly.

Qantas said it also wanted the former workers to receive “fair compensation as quickly as possible”.

“Qantas sincerely apologises and deeply regrets the personal impact the outsourcing decision had on these former employees,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.