Qantas CEO Alan Joyce on Wednesday skipped his airline’s appearance before a Senate committee that descended into a heated row between senior executives and Labor’s Tony Sheldon.
Sheldon, who previously headed the TWU, said he was disappointed Joyce chose not to appear when his counterpart at Virgin, Jayne Hrdlicka, gave evidence at an earlier hearing.
“Qantas is not Alan Joyce, and certainly isn’t the three of you,” said Sheldon, who also accused the business of having a “cavalier” approach to its workers.
Wednesday marked the fourth hearing of the Senate committee examining “the future of Australia’s aviation sector, in the context of COVID-19 and conditions post-pandemic”.
It’s designed as a forum for top industry figures to discuss how the pandemic has affected the industry and to examine how it can best recover.
Qantas was represented by Parker, who heads up International and Sustainability; Finch, its general counsel; and David, the CEO of Qantas Domestic and International.
Parker hinted Joyce was unable to attend because he was “on a roadshow this week talking to employees, as well as investors”.
Sheldon began his questioning by asking if the three were aware of an internal document, obtained by The Sydney Morning Herald last year, that appeared to suggest the airline had planned the recent outsourcing of workers years ago.
“Here’s the facts,” said David, “Last year, we were hiring people into the business, including into our ground operation business. We were invested in equipment to turn aircraft, we had a plan to invest $80 million over the next five years in equipment for ground operations. And indeed, every six months, I was attending internal roadshows with those staff to explain exactly that. And we had been rolling out equipment.
“COVID hit, we lost 11 billion in revenue, we ended up in a crisis situation, that meant we’ve had to recapitalise to resize the business. And we have to restructure to ensure that when we come through this pandemic, we are in a position where we can grow and start earning people back into the business.
“What we’ve done is we’ve looked at ground operations, and we’ve been very, very clear. Outsourcing to providers that we already used in 55 of 65 airports saves $100 million, it avoids $80 million of capital spend when we no longer have that capital, and it totally verbalises our cost base, which is proved to be essential in these uncertain times. Because as you would understand, we can’t afford to have high fixed costs to our business.”
Sheldon interrupted and said, “We aren’t talking about high fixed costs. We’re talking about 2,500 workers, many of whom have been there for decades, supporting the airline through thick and thin. So we’re not talking about costs.
“We’re talking about those people that have been doing it hard. Was it 10 years ago? Can you please answer this? I’m giving you a fair go. Was it 10 years ago, there was a document prepared by Qantas that there was an intention to exit ground services by 2020. Does that document exist?”
David responded, “I can tell you, Senator, I’ve worked at six airlines, every airline would have a document at some stage that would have looked at ground operations. All airlines around the world use external providers. I can tell you last year, we were hiring into ground operations. We had no intention of outsourcing ground operations.”
At one point, he told the committee, “Qantas is not Alan Joyce, and certainly isn’t the three of you. It’s the workforce and all of you. And the way this company has approached those individuals is an outrageous consideration after the billions of dollars we’ve given in support as a community as taxpayers to this airline.
“I don’t begrudge that support at all. What I begrudge is how you’ve used it, and the lack of responsibility that the company has taken for the way that they’ve approached these workers.”
Sheldon and Qantas have a long-standing bad relationship going back to his decade in charge of the TWU. At one point, The Australian reported that he said he would consider launching “a campaign of civil disobedience” over job cuts.
The disputed Qantas outsourcing plans, meanwhile, have seen the airline brand remove operations at the 10 Australian airports where the work is done in-house, which includes Adelaide, Alice Springs, Brisbane, Cairns, Canberra, Darwin, Melbourne, Perth, Sydney and Townsville.
The TWU responded by securing the services of Waterfront dispute lawyer Josh Bornstein, who is set to argue in the Federal Court in April that Qantas’ proposals contravene the Fair Work Act. If successful, a potential ruling could have major ramifications for other businesses.
Even though Qantas in the process of making the redundancies, current TWU national secretary Michael Kaine has told the Australian Aviation Podcast the workers could be subsequently rehired.
In response, Qantas has accused the TWU of not telling the truth. In particular, it has rejected accusations that it has transferred ground handling roles to “labour hire firms” and denied it has abused JobKeeper subsidies. It’s also hit back at the central claim that it removed in-house roles to avoid collective bargaining agreements.